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.
|Friday 29 May||Arrivals:|
|Saturday 30 May||The Royal tombs:|
|Sunday 31 May||Journey into Gangwondo:|
|Monday 1 June||Sanshinje:|
|Tuesday 2 June||Journey to Busan:|
|Wednesday 3 June||Journey to Sancheong:|
|Thursday 4 June||A King, two generals and a gisaeng:|
|Friday 5 June||Back to school, back to Seoul:|
|Saturday 6 June||Yeongsanjae: |
|Sunday 7 June||Namhansanseong:|
|Monday 8 June||Departure:|
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.