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2016 travel diary 10: early morning in Baekje Cultural Land

Gyuam-myeon, Buyeo-gun, Chungchongnam-do, 17 May 2016, 7am.

Lotte and early Korea-Japan connections

The gate to the main courtyard of the reconstructed palace in Baekje Cultural Land
The gate to the main courtyard of the reconstructed palace in Baekje Cultural Land

Baekje is known for its close ties to early Japan. According to one version of events, Empress Jingu was an invader from the Korean peninsula and had Baekje blood in her. Such a controversial hypothesis does not appear as a possibility on Jingu’s Wikipedia entry (in which Jingu is a Japanese princess who invades Korea before returning to her Japanese base), but can be found in the book Korean Impact on Japanese Culture by Jon Carter Covell & Alan Covell (Hollym, 1983). Jingu is a semi-mythical figure anyway, and perhaps debating on how “Korean” or “Japanese” she was is futile. What is less contentious is that Buddhism was introduced to Japan from Korea, and many of the early craftsmen that built the first temples in Japan were from Baekje (as well as Goguryo). Further, no less a figure than the current emperor of Japan acknowledges royal Baekje blood in the imperial line: “I… feel a certain kinship with Korea, given the fact that it is recorded in the Chronicles of Japan that the mother of Emperor Kammu (r 781 – 806 CE) was of the line of King Muryeong of Baekche”

So, regardless of the truthiness of the various stories about the connections between early Japan and the kingdoms on the Korean peninsula, and who was top dog, there are undoubtedly blood ties between the Baekje royal family and the Japanese imperial line. And there were undoubtedly other interactions between Baekje and Japan – religious, trade – as evidenced for example in King Muryeong’s tomb.

Buyeo's Lotte Resort Hotel
Buyeo’s Lotte Resort Hotel

So, if a Japanese-Korean chaebol such as Lotte is looking for a place to locate a massive resort / theme park / tourist attraction to rival Samsung’s Everland in Gyeonggi-do, and are aiming to target their destination at the Japanese market as well as domestic tourism, the obvious place is to build something in the cultural heartlands of the Baekje kingdom where visitors can come and celebrate the friendly ties between the neighbours that existed in the 6th and 7th centuries.

Enter Lotte’s Baekje Cultural Land, a gargantuan project which has absorbed over half a billion dollars (700 billion Won) over the course of 20 years (starting in 1994). When I saw roadsigns to it on entering Buyeo the previous day I had joked with Chris that it sounded terrible. I had to backtrack when Chris told me it was on our schedule. And once I was there I was very glad we had made time for it.

The first welcome surprise of the day

Early morning on Lotte's Baekje golf course
Early morning on Lotte’s Baekje golf course

I emerged from slumber in our small apartment-style accommodation shortly before 7:30 to find that Chris had already vacated her room to make use of the hotel’s sauna facilities. Everything about this resort is on a grand scale and everything is laid on for an activity-filled stay. I stepped out onto the balcony to make the usual morning call back home to Louise and to take in the early morning air. I watched as the groundsmen tended the adjoining golf course. The sound of lawnmowers is a peculiarly English one. Chris returns to the room at around 8, just as I’m finishing my morning ablutions, and I turn on the iPlayer radio to listen to the midnight news on the BBC. A strangely familiar voice emerges from the iPad in the middle of a news item. It’s not the normal authoritative tones of the usual newsreader. It’s a soft, gentle voice, slightly hesitant but very precise and deliberate. I’m still not fully awake but when she mentions something about Korea everything suddenly comes into sharp focus. The voice belongs to novelist Han Kang. On the BBC Radio 4 news. I let out a whoop of joy because it can only mean one thing, immediately confirmed by the newsreader has he wraps up the item: The Vegetarian has won the International Booker Prize.

Han Kang and Deborah Smith
Han Kang and Deborah Smith with their Man Booker International Prize

The second surprise: Baekje Cultural Land

The entrance to Sabiseong
The entrance to Sabiseong

We check out of our huge resort hotel, retrieve Chris’s car from the multi-storey basement car park and drive across the road to an expansive open-air car and coach park, wondering how this place could ever be full to capacity. We walk past a huge museum and pay the couple of thousand Won to get into the main attraction. We pause outside the main gate to look at the information board. As well as the resort hotel with conference facilities and golf course there is an outlet mall to provide retail therapy; a spa, garden, farm and kids’ area; there is the Korea National University of Cultural Heritage, which has departments specialising in traditional crafts, architecture, landscaping, archaeology, conservation and properties management. Finally, there is the thing we have come to see: the area called Sabiseong, which contains a mock-up of a Baekje royal palace and Buddhist temple, a full-scale reconstruction of some Sabi period tombs, a Baekje folk village containing artisans’ cottages, and a reimagining of what the early Baekje capital Wiryeseong on the banks of the Han River might have looked like.

A map of Baekje Cultural Land
A map of Baekje Cultural Land, taken from a large notice board outside the entrance

But this is more than a mock-up. The palace area, Sabigung, is an attempt to recreate the royal palace in Sabi, while the temple area is based on the floor-plan of the archaeological remains of the temple in Neungsan-ri where the famous gilt-bronze incense burner was discovered in 1993.

The huge open space inside Sabiseong's main gate: ahead is the palace; to its right, the temple
The huge open space inside Sabiseong’s main gate: ahead is the palace; to its right, the temple

Lotte has paid for the best in craftsmanship, employing the “human treasures” – holders of the relevant intangible cultural assets such as woodwork, dancheong and calligraphy. The results are extremely impressive, though they are also perhaps a touch clinical. Particularly in the palace area the place feels new (which it is), scrubbed clean (which of course is to be commended) and not having the lived-in feel of the Joseon dynasty palaces in Seoul. It needs a few rough edges and imperfections. It feels as if some arriviste 6th-century Baekje royal has time-travelled into the future to see the Changdeokgung and the Gyeongbokgung and decided that the representative Baekje palace should be bigger, and then time-travelled further into the 21st century to incorporate future wheelchair accessibility and health and safety standards into his ideal residence. It probably isn’t any bigger than the Gyeongbokgung’s, but the main courtyard feels like you could fit several football pitches into it. Maybe the feeling of size is accentuated by its emptiness. We were among the first visitors of the day: there were fewer than a dozen people wandering around the buildings during the half hour or so that we were there. In a way it was good to have the place to ourselves, but the emptiness accentuated the unreality of the place.

We were in a bit of a hurry, and the size of it all was a little daunting. We were due to be in Sancheong County, around two hours’ drive away, at midday. It was 9am, and we wanted to cover Baekje Cultural Land, the Buyeo National Museum, and the Royal Tombs in Neungsan-ri before we hit the road – clearly a bit of a challenge. I would need to ring my friend in Sancheong later, once I had a better idea of our estimated time of arrival.

It is comforting that we are not alone in our haste. As we look around the royal throne room, admiring the craftsmanship and the splendid Baekje royal costumes in display cases (they look like Japanese kimonos), we overhear a tour guide telling his charges: “we have to be quick. We only have fifteen minutes here before we have to be on our way.” Good luck to them. We took the best part of an hour, because it really was rather good. Inside the throne room, apart from the costumes, there was a facsimile of a Baekje-style book: small strips of wood tied together with cotton. And something else seemed really odd, but I couldn’t place it at the time. Red was the dominant colour everywhere – the pillars, the woodwork, the throne. The throne was decorated with dragons, and on the wall behind it was a golden phoenix. We are so used to seeing the Sun, Moon and Five Peaks behind the throne that it feels alien to have anything else. But that custom was for the Joseon dynasty. For the Baekje kings the phoenix symbolised peace and longevity.

Dancheong in the palace area of Sabiseong
Dancheong in the palace area of Sabiseong

For me, what was particularly interesting about the exterior of the buildings was the colour palette of the dancheong – much softer than you expect from the familiar Joseon dynasty colour scheme. One of the motifs used in the design, that of the eight-petalled lotus flower with whispy clouds, is based on the mural found on the ceiling of one of the tombs in Neungsan-ri. Here, as at Jeongnimsa Temple the day before, the colours were creams and pastel peppermint green: very easy on the eye. And, whether authentic or not, the palace roofs were much straighter than the typical curved shape of Joseon construction.

The palace has its central courtyard with the main throne room (the Cheonjeongjeon) in the middle of the north side. To the east of the main courtyard is a smaller courtyard containing the Munsajeon which would have been used for civilian administrative purposes, while a similar courtyard to the west contained the Museokjeon which would have been used for military matters. Long corridors run around the outside of the courtyards to give protection from sun and rain.

Sabiseong's temple
Sabiseong’s temple

To the east of the palace area is the temple, which is based, in size at least, on the temple in Neungsan-ri, the archaeological site that yielded up the famous Gilt-Bronze Incense Burner in 1993. The original temple was built in 567 CE by King Wideok, the son of King Seong who moved the Baekje capital from Ungjin (Gongju) to Sabi (Buyeo). The date can be stated with precision because of the inscription on the stone sarira casket (National Treasure #288) that was found on the site of the pagoda.

The five-storey pagoda
The five-storey pagoda

The temple is constructed on standard Baekje principles: a pagoda with a prayer hall to its north and a lecture hall beyond. The pagoda is wooden and has five storeys – like the Silla temple Beopjusa in Chungcheongbuk-do. It is 38 metres tall to the tip of its the sangryun – the metal cylinder / spike which completes the pagoda. The sangryun is made of copper, gold-plated by hand, and then lacquered.

The pagoda required the services of the holders of five intangible cultural properties:

The prayer hall which nestles to its north looks from the outside as if it is a two-storey structure, but inside it is one single space. This hall houses a Buddha triad of lacquered wood, in front of which is a replica of the famous gilt-bronze incense burner.

The lotus pond to the south of the temple
The lotus pond to the south of the temple

Outside of the temple is a large lotus pond with a shaded pavilion in its corner – a great vantage point from which to take in a view of the temple.

The temple seen from the pavilion on the lotus pond
The temple seen from the pavilion on the lotus pond

We didn’t have time to visit the tomb park, the living culture village or the reconstructed Wiryeseong. I can imagine that the whole of Sabiseong could easily have kept us engaged for two to three hours rather than the 45 minutes we had available. But then I would not have covered the ground that I really wanted to cover.


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