Jeonju. Food capital of Korea. Slow City. Home to the famous Hanok Village. Ancestral seat of the Yi family, the royal house of the Joseon dynasty. Host of the Jeonju International Film Festival. Home to the hanji museum, the royal portrait museum… All this I knew about the capital of Jeonbuk province before my visit there.
After meeting Kim Seung-su, Jeonju’s youthful, energetic and articulate mayor, I had a few more facts: Jeonju. Home of 44 intangible cultural assets (when the average count for other cities is around 2). Host to the Intangible Cultural Heritage Festival, the Jeonju Sori Festival, the beer drinking festival; a city that welcomes 13 million tourists a year (10 million locals and 3 million foreigners) without ever marketing the city to the Chinese tour firms (Chinese tour groups expect cut-price deals, and that’s not the sort of Slow City market that Jeonju is chasing). It was refreshing to talk to an official whose office furniture had slick, modern lines and was made from recycled wood, designed by a local architect; whose desk was designed for standing at, rather than sitting; whose choice of colour for the office walls was a vibrant green. More than anything else, it was inspiring to talk to an official who was so enthusiastic about intangible cultural heritage. This was someone who was not an official in the Ministry of Culture whose job it was to promote the country’s heritage; this is the elected mayor, with a vision for mark out his city as something unique.
So how does the reality match up to the rosy picture? First, I must confess I did not see Jeonju at its best. Caught at the height of the holiday period, in the middle of its International Film Festival, Jeonju was Slow for all the wrong reasons. Its traffic was at a standstill. There were huge queues at the food stalls. Tourists thronged the streets, blocking the path of anyone who wanted to walk at a normal pace. Hotel occupancy was 100%. Yes Jeonju was slow, but because the traffic getting there had also been slow, we didn’t get there till mid-afternoon, and everything felt rushed.
But even in such adverse circumstances, we had an interesting time and I would definitely return to revisit the ground we managed to cover, only in more detail and greater leisure; and maybe to experience some of the intangible cultural assets or festivals it has to offer.
Our journey from Seoul had been slow, and we arrived in the university area of Jeonju in time for a late lunch. We got to our mid-afternoon rendezvous with a Jeonju City tour guide, who was to show us some of the highlights. The welcome had very kindly been fixed by a friend who used to work at the Korean cultural centre in London, who was now on the jury of the Jeonju International Film Festival.
The Hanok Village was where we spent most of our time. Despite the crowds, it was remarkably clean and tidy – nowhere could you see the sort of trash that the tour groups leave behind in Seoul’s Bukchon. Our tour guide steered us through some of the quieter alleyways, to the workshop where they were making hanji; to the house of the senior surviving scion of the Yi royal family; up the hill to the Omokdae, the pavilion where Yi Seong-gye (the future King Taejo) is said to have paused in 1380 on his return home after defeating the invading Japanese at Hwangsan near Namwon.
From here we enjoy a view over the old part of town and towards Jeongdong Catholic Cathedral which marks the site where the first Christian martyr in Korea, Yun Ji-chung, met his end in 1791. There was plenty to see, but not nearly enough time to see it all. We had to skip past the Sori cultural centre, the traditional alcohol museum, the oriental medicine cultural centre, the folding fan cultural centre and much more besides.
Instead, we cross the road from the Catholic Cathedral to visit the memorial to the founder the dynasty under which the Korean Christians were persecuted, spending our last available half hour on having a quick look around the museum of portraits of the Joseon dynasty monarchs – well worth a much more leisurely visit – before it was time to dash for my evening interview with the mayor.
All the while, we had been making plans for the evening. One of my objectives in coming to Jeonju was to catch a film or two at the film festival, but the main film I wanted to see (featuring the singer Kwon BoA) was booked solid. As indeed were the hotels. Two of my friends were planning on heading back to Seoul after dinner by public transport, and Chris was going to drive to stay with a friend in Taean-gun. Miraculously, she agreed to take me along, and her friend kindly booked a seaside pension for me. So, after a splendid feast at which we enjoyed some of the cuisine for which Jeonju is famous, we headed northwards towards the coast. Chris checked me in to my mystery overnight accommodation and drove off to her friend’s house somewhere else in the county, leaving me to enjoy my own company.