Echoes and connections – an introduction to LKL’s 2015 Korea Trip

Silla General Kim Yu-sin
Silla General Kim Yu-sin, mountain god of Daegwallyeong Pass, and great-grandson of the Last King of Gaya

A few days into this year’s Korea trip, my brain was threatening to explode. Coming to Seoul is always a pretty full-on experience: so many things to pack in, so many people to see; and inevitably the first few days you are also pretty sleep-deprived as you adjust to the time zone. But this year it was different. The weight of links, connections, coincidences, experiences and kindnesses I was encountering was almost too much to bear. A conversation I would have one day with one person would somehow be echoed in a conversation the next with a completely different companion; there were unexpected encounters between people who turned out to know each other; and a historical figure I encountered in one province would reappear unexpectedly in another one. Just as when your eye gains pleasure for looking at a well planned garden, as it is led from a particular shrub in one border to a plant that harmoniously balances it in a border further away, so this trip gave pleasure from the expected and unexpected echoes that were encountered in different places and times.

The intended theme of the trip was a UNESCO-registered intangible cultural heritage: the shamanistic rites associated with the Dano Festival in Gangneung; and by good fortune a major Buddhist UNESCO-listed ceremony was taking place in Seoul later the same week. Less intended initially was the theme of Joseon dynasty fortresses and tombs – the latter sub-theme expanded to include tombs from the sixth and twentieth centuries. But the other theme of the visit turned out to be a rich network of of coincidences and connections:

  • A conversation about a bloodied handkerchief as I stand outside a royal tomb one morning is echoed in a conversation about a recently released and highly recommended film later the same day.
  • A conversation about buckwheat I have in Gangwondo (where else but in Lee Hyo-seok country?) links an animation studio that I was soon to visit – a studio whose work includes an adaptation of Lee Hyo-seok’s famous story.
  • A dinner in Edinburgh last year built a bond with someone who just happened to be driving to Gangneung from Seoul the very day that I wanted to make the very same journey.
  • A conversation about a gayageum player with one dining companion is echoed by a conversation about that same musician with my driving companion on the trip to Gangneung. (Such a coincidence prompted an immediate Facebook friend request that was soon accepted).
  • The mountain god of Daegwallyeong, whom we honoured in the sanshinje in the pass above Gangneung, is the Silla General Kim Yu-sin. A few days after the sanshinje I was on a hike on Wangsan in the foothills of Jirisan, and came across a stele to mark the place where that same general used to practise archery. A further connection is that he is the great grandson of Guhyeong, the last King of Gaya, whose tomb I have now visited three times.
  • A composer I met for the first time turns out to have studied at Goldsmiths in London, while another person I met for the first time at the same drinking session turns out to be married to a Korean artist who lives in the UK and who was also known to another of my dinner companions who is a gallery curator.
  • A restaurant name in Hongdae, Seoul, containing a present participle is echoed by another restaurant name with a similar verb construction in Seomyeon, Busan – the opposite corner of the country.
  • A conversation about the best books on the subject of the Imjin Waeran in Seoul Selection concluded in favour of Samuel Hawley’s book – a volume I had seen reverently displayed in a glass case two days earlier in the Jinju National Museum.
  • And, maybe I’m getting carried away here, but when I visited the place where she threw herself into the river, taking the conquering Japanese General with her, I would like to believe that the spirit of Nongae descended onto that very rock in the form of a heron.

Some of these connections will appear meaningless to many, but it was the thing which more than anything else seems to be the theme of this visit.

It will take a while to do the research necessary to write up the various stages in the journey, in the meanwhile, here is the itinerary:

Friday 29 May Arrivals:

  • Dinner at Bear Eating Greens (나물 먹는 곰) in Hongdae;
  • 2차 at Strange Fruit in Hongdae to listen to the amazing Vidulgi Ooyoo.
Saturday 30 May The Royal tombs:

  • Coffee with illustrator Jieun Kim, aka The Drawing Hand, designer of the 2014 LKL Christmas card (and of the 2015 one too);
  • Lunch and a tour round the five royal tombs at Seooreung with a friend I met at the London Book Fair last year;
  • Tea and the best bingsu ever with the Kilburns at the Tea Museum;
  • Makgeolli and jeon with Brother Anthony and Hank Kim at Kim Sakkat near Insadong.
Sunday 31 May Journey into Gangwondo:

  • A visit to the Park Soo-geun exhibition at the Dongdaemun Design Plaza;
  • A drive to Gangneung with a detour to King Sejong’s tomb in Yeoju;
  • Dinner in a seafront restaurant with my kind driver and her professor, followed by 2차 at Gangneung’s finest coffee shop.
Monday 1 June Sanshinje:

  • A bus trip to Daegwallyeong pass for various shamanistic rituals, bringing the spirit of the village guardian down to Gangneung;
  • dinner with the interpreter kindly provided by the Danoje organising committee.
Tuesday 2 June Journey to Busan:

  • A 5-hour bus ride to Korea’s port city;
  • A visit to the UN memorial cemetery;
  • A fabulous pork neck (목살) BBQ at Man Grilling Meat (고기 굽는 男子);
  • The first news of the MERS scare
Wednesday 3 June Journey to Sancheong:

  • The tastiest breakfast ever: pork gukbap;
  • A bus ride to Jinju where I am picked up by my friends from Sancheong;
  • Tea with master potter Min Young-gi;
  • A visit to the director of the county tourism department;
  • Sashimi dinner with friends old and new, with rather too much of my favourite soju brand.
Thursday 4 June A King, two generals and a gisaeng:

  • An early morning hike to the tomb of King Guhyeong and the place where his great grandson general Kim Yu-sin used to practise archery;
  • A pretty temple, an early breakfast with a new friend from the previous evening, and a rest before having lunch with some county officials;
  • A trip to Jinju to visit the fortress and the place where Nongae sacrificed herself to kill a Japanese general;
  • Dinner with the mayor and other officials.
Friday 5 June Back to school, back to Seoul:

  • A visit to a county elementary school;
  • A very special home-cooked lunch;
  • A bus ride back to Seoul;
  • A few beers at the British Embassy, dinner in Gwanghwamun, the Sogyumo Acacia Band in a coffee shop in Hongdae followed by craft beer nearby.
Saturday 6 June Yeongsanjae:

  • A bus ride to Bongwonsa temple for the UNESCO-listed ceremonies;
  • A visit to Seodaemun prison for a bit of 20th century history;
  • Seungmu, salpuri and more in Daehakro;
  • Smoked duck barbecue and a walk back to Myeongdong.
Sunday 7 June Namhansanseong:

  • A hike around some of Namhansanseong, a world heritage fortress to the south east of Seoul;
  • A visit to an interesting contemporary building and more Joseon royal tombs in Gangnam;
  • A bit of shopping and a look around a temporary exhibition of Buddhist artefacts at the National Museum of Korea;
  • Dinner with friends new and old in Insadong, followed by 2차 nearby.
Monday 8 June Departure:

  • … But not before a very congenial visit to Studio Meditation with a Pencil, the animation studio responsible for Green Days and This Road Called Life.

This year, I don’t think I’ll write up everything in detail, but I’ll see how time goes. In the meanwhile a few thanks are due to the following:

  • Han Hye-Jung at the Korean Embassy in London, for helping with the trip to Gangneung;
  • Chris Ryu for being such a generous driver on the way to Gangneung;
  • The Danoje organising committee for providing me with an interpreter, and to Han Eun-Jin for doing the interpreting;
  • Professor Park from Gangneung University for the dinner;
  • The Kim sisters, Nam-Hee and Min, who are among my longest-standing Korean friends, for being such generous hosts in Busan;
  • Min Young-gi and 사모님 for their hospitality and the wonderful gift;
  • Baek Kyung-sook for her friendship and for bringing me back to Sancheong again;
  • Yoon Jin-gu for again setting aside so much time, and to the mayor and many new friends in Sancheong;
  • Kim Insoon for dinner on Saturday and Cecilia Kim for 2차 on Sunday;
  • Frances Yoo and Director Ahn for inviting me to visit the animation studio;
  • Others who were so generous with their time and who would probably prefer to remain nameless.

Thanks again.

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