Mungyeong-si, Gyeongsangbuk-do, Tuesday 2 May 2017, 1:30pm. Mungyeong Saejae, the pass high in the hills above the town of Mungyeong, is the place where Gyeongsang province meets Chungcheong province, and the place where the Yeongnamdaero – the old road between Seoul and Busan – crosses the Baekdudaegan, Korea’s mountain backbone. On the Mungyeong side of the pass the water emerging from springs eventually works its way into the Nakdong River; on the Chungcheong side, the water ends up in the Han. This is a pivotal place in the Korean peninsula, and it used to be the pass over which Yeongnam scholars taking their civil service exams would journey on their way to Seoul. The pass was opened in the reign of King Taejong (r. 1400-1418), and today’s tourists can walk in the footsteps of those scholars, as the road still exists as the central attraction of Mungyeong Saejae Provincial Park.
As a consequence of the Japanese invasions of 1592-98, the pass on the Mungyeong side became fortified with three gates, recognising its strategic importance. Juheulgwan, the lowest of the gates, almost on the plains near Mungyeong town itself, was built in 1708 to defend the pass from attacks from the south. All the gates have been reconstructed and renovated since they were originally built – Joryeonggwan, the third of the gates, situated at the top of the pass to defend against attacks from the north – was renovated as recently as 1976. The first gate is the one that most closely resembles the original structure, and survives with 900 metres of wall. The earliest of the gates is the middle gate, built in 1594 when the Japanese were still rampaging around the peninsula.
A few hundred yards inside the first gate, the other side of the river from the main road, is a film set: originally built by KBS in 2000 with a budget of KRW 3.2 billion, the set was intended to resemble Goryeo-era Kaesong, and was used for the drama Taejo Wanggeon among other productions. A further 7 billion was spent in 2008 to bring the site forward into the Joseon dynasty, with buildings resembling Seoul’s Gwanghwamun, and Gyeongbokgung. When not being used as a film set, or as a tourist attraction, the town provides the perfect venue for the various festivals that any self-respecting county or city holds during the year.
Mungyeong has festivals celebrating its beef, its omija berries, its apples, its hiking, and its tea culture. But it is the annual tea bowl festival that is a highlight of the Mungyeong calendar, one of the top six festivals in Korea, according to the Korea Tourism Organisation.
Although Icheon has a ceramics festival which is perhaps better known than Mungyeong’s (it is, after all, closer to Seoul), Mungyeong is the official location of National Intangible Cultural Asset # 105 Sagijang (Ceramics). Kim Jeong-ok is current holder of that property, while the holder of the comparable Provincial property is Cheon Han-bong, who is based at Mungyeong-yo pottery.
Mungyeong “is the best tea bowl producing place because of high quality sandy soil with wide limestone deposits,” says the city website, though Cheon often blends the local soil with some from Hadong-gun in Gyeongsangnam-do. But there is one eye-catching statistic that seals Mungyeong as the dominant location for artisan pottery: in the area there are no fewer than 40 wood-fired kilns. All these were lit a few days previously to mark the opening of the 2017 tea bowl festival.
Our guide for the afternoon is Oh Jeong-taek, one of the potters exhibiting in the festival, and one of the very few artisans in Korea who also specialises in making the traditional wood-fired kiln. The year before, he had built one of these kilns for my friend in Sancheong and they had kept in touch ever since. Master Oh has taken the pen name Wolbong, after his famous grandfather (of whom more tomorrow), and his pottery is called Wolbong-yo.
Many of the humbler straw-thatched cottages in the film set are pressed into service as restaurants and cafes, while the more aristocratic, tile-roofed buildings act as showrooms for the many artisan potteries exhibiting their wares – which of course include tea bowls, though that is not the only form of ceramic available.
From Moon Jars to humble coffee cups via decorative and ornamental pieces, this is certainly the place to come to pick up some hand-made stoneware or porcelain. In one of the larger buildings are the finalists in the tea bowl competition; and also, the finalists in the young artisans competition.
Pottery is not the only local craft on display. One stall is handing out samples of the alcohol – hosanchun, a designated item of intangible cultural heritage for Mungyeong-si. It is delicious, and we buy a couple of bottles in case they should come in handy later. In an intangible cultural heritage pavilion nearby is Kim Chun-ho, the son of the official holder of the Gyeongbuk’s intangible cultural property #23B (hanji making), who had demonstrated the art at the Victorian and Albert Museum a few years before. This was the man whose paper-making workshop was the setting for Im Kwon-taek’s movie Scooping the Moonlight. Although it was filmed in the mountains around Mungyeong, where the Kim family harvests the mulberry bark for their paper-making, the movie was funded by Jeonju, which has its own paper-making tradition along with many other items of intangible cultural heritage, as I would find out later in my trip.
As the sun goes down, the shadows lengthen. We make our way to the pension where we will be staying the night. We are joined by Master Oh’s wife and children and make our way to a local restaurant, returning back to our lodgings with a fantastic spread of side dishes (sashimi, bondaegi, strawberries and more) to go with our bottles of hosanchun. Kyung-sook retires to her room while Master Oh and I stretch out on the floor of the living area. It will be an early start the next day.