Seoul Station, Saturday 29 April 2017, 12:30pm. It is the first full day of my Korea trip. I had arrived in Seoul the previous evening, catching the bus to my mid-range hotel near Jogyesa. I had found my favourite coffee shop, had dinner with good friends in Hoban, a traditional, earthy eating house in Nakwondong, followed by 2cha at Unni Sarangbang, a slightly more refined drinking establishment in Unnidong, and strolled around Jogyesa at night time enjoying the colourful lanterns arranged in preparation for Buddha’s birthday and Seoul Lantern Festival. Saturday morning was a leisurely start, with a return trip to the coffee shop for breakfast before heading off to the station with the KTX ticket that I had purchased over the internet and printed off in London.
It was the first time I had caught the train to Busan since the 2016 hit movie. Apart from pulling in to Busan Station seven minutes late the journey was unsurprising. My friend from Sancheong meets me at the station and drives the short distance to the modest hotel where our party would be staying for the night, nearby the art gallery in Jungang-dong at the foot of Yongdusan, the hill at the South-East corner of Busan on the top of which is the tower.
We park the car and walk to Gallery 604. My Sancheong friend’s teacher, Min Young-ki, has the opening event for his solo show of his famous tea bowls. Spread over the two floors of the gallery are thirty three of his works, displayed individually or in small groups, beautifully illuminated and with plenty of space to breathe. The shelves are arranged at different heights, with the aim of showing off the most attractive elements of each bowl – maybe salmon-like spots on the inside, or rustic cracks in the slip on the outside. Min is of course there, along with his sons and grand-daughter, and some of his supporters from Sancheong County, along with the gallery’s own client list. Congratulatory speeches are made and team photos taken.
Over the years my appreciation for Min’s art has grown as I have both lived with his some of his pieces and got to know the work of other makers. Within the overall genre of the humble tea bowl there are many different approaches. Some artists – such as Kim Munho – prefer a coarse, rustic approach: the clay is thick, the finish deliberately rough, like oatmeal. At the opposite extreme there are some highly glazed pieces. Min’s path strikes a balance between the two. Most of them are without slip, relying on the simplicity and beauty of the clay itself. The walls are slender enough that when you rub them gently between your fingers and thumb they seem to sing. When you flick the rim with your fingernail, holding the coarse foot in your other hand, there is a satisfying ping. He experiments with subtly different slips and mixes of clay, but it is the simplest of bowls, without any slip, but where the clay develops salmon-like blotches, for which he seems to be best known.
The gallery has laid on a splendid celebratory dinner at a nearby restaurant after the opening event: a tent accommodating around twenty people has been erected and laid out with banchan for the grilled meats and bean-paste noodle soup that will follow. Soon we are merrily knocking back the plenteous supplies of soju and beer that have been provided for us.
The evening turns into a bit of a blur, and we eventually retire to our respective rooms at the hotel after more drinks in the hotel restaurant, and arrange an 8:30 checkout the following morning.
Despite the late night we are all feeling surprisingly fresh the next day, though I needed a stiff coffee from the local Coffee Bean just across the road. My stomach does quite not feel up to the kimchi pretzel that is on offer. Someone suggests a trip to Jagalchi Fish market, Busan’s popular destination in the Nampodong harbourside area, a suggestion that is warmly received by everyone. I thought we were going there just so that the visiting foreigner could enjoy the tourist spot, but we soon find ourselves entering an eatery behind a fish stall whose tanks were crammed with different fish, crabs and other sea food. As crates of live fish are emptied into the tanks, one of the fishmongers selects a flounder and starts preparing sashimi.
At a table in the corner of the restaurant three men are seated, quietly tucking into their fourth bottle of soju with their breakfast. Maybe they had just finished their night shift. We sit at the adjacent table and order rockfish stew – two large bowls between the six of us – which comes with a wide selection of side dishes and some grilled fish. We leave one bowl unseasoned, and add chilli flakes to the other bowl which we will consume second. It is enough food to last me the day, but of course a hearty lunch and dinner were to follow.
After breakfast we climb in to our two cars and head off towards Sancheong. But en route I have requested a stop-off in Haman County to see some Gaya period tombs.