Sat 29 April: Busan – Min Young-ki’s solo show
Sun 30 April: Haman-gun – Gaya kingdom royal tombs
Mon 1 May: Sancheong-gun – Hwangmaesan Royal Azalea festival
Tue 2 May: Mungyeong-si – Tea bowl festival
Wed 3 May: Buddha’s Birthday in Bongamsa | The Gyeongbokgung at night
Thu 4 May: Jeonju
Fri 5 May: Taean-gun – Chollipo Arboretum | Ansan Street Arts Festival
Sat-Sun 6 – 7 May: a lazy weekend in Seoul
This year, I’m not doing a detailed hour-by-hour account of my trip. That’s not because I didn’t have much to report. It’s just that I decided only to focus on the bits which merit standalone articles. After all, you don’t particularly want to know what I had for lunch every day, or who my dinner companions were. Nevertheless, here’s a compendium of food porn from the trip.
Each time I go to Korea it’s the friendship and good fortune I enjoy when I am there that I notice more and more. This year, I had more than my fair share of both.
Quite apart from my existing friends in Sancheong and Seoul who seem to have boundless generosity towards me, I met new people this time, and I know I shall be friends with them too in the future. In Sancheong, one of the county officials with whom I was bonding in the usual alcoholic way announced that he was happy to be my hyeong. I was honoured and touched. In Taean, I bonded with my host over our love of books as objects of possession as opposed purely to words on a page. I hope I shall return to resume our discussion in future years. In Mungyeong, I enjoyed a highly unusual 2차: sitting on the floor in a pension with my host, his wife and son, together with my Sancheong friend; drinking two bottles of Hosanchun – a Gyeongsangbuk-do intangible cultural asset; with fresh trout sashimi (after an already plenteous supper); silkworm larvae (a first for me, and not unpleasant at all); and strawberries, raw garlic, chilli, potato salad and assorted leaves. Wearing pyjamas. My host and I didn’t talk much to each other – we don’t speak each other’s language – but I knew we would see each other again as friends.
Then, there are the elements of chance and good fortune, and here this year I was so hugely fortunate that I really cannot believe it. Here’s why.
- When I had been vaguely planning this year’s trip, I had searched through the Korean Tourism Organisation’s website to see what festivals were in progress during my stay. The Ansan Street Arts Festival caught my eye, and I wondered whether I should cover it as a day trip from Seoul but suspected I wouldn’t get round to it.
- A few years ago, in my researches of the various sites of horticultural interest in Korea (assembled with the long term objective of compiling a garden tour of the peninsula to entice my wife to visit) I had come across the story of a crazy foreigner who bought a piece of land on the west coast and created a noted arboretum at a place called Chollipo. I filed the piece of information away in the recesses of my brain and forgot about it.
- When I had been planning the trip to Jeonju for the International Film Festival, I had thought that it would be rather nice not to hurry back to Seoul, but instead to spend a day in a coastal village. I had remembered what happy times I had spent in the Southern coastal towns of Tongyeong in 2011 and Ttanggeut in 2016, and wondered if I could experience similar contentedness somewhere on the West Coast. I looked at the map for potential coastal locations anywhere from due west of Jeonju up as far as Incheon. Due west, the coast is the Saemangeum sea wall with all the ecological horror stories associated with it. Further north: Seocheon, and the KTO website didn’t have much to say about it. Continuing upwards, there is Boryeong, and that place has had its brand fatally tarnished by the negative associations of its Mud Festival. Next, Taean. Looks remote. Not many roads or towns, and a nice crinkly coastline. Most of the county is National Park. Hmmm. Sounds like the perfect place. Little did I know…
That’s the backstory. Now to what happened. In Jeonju, there was a bit of a mix-up on the accommodation front. I thought I had somewhere to stay, but actually when I got there I had nowhere. Everyone had thought someone else was fixing my lodging, and it was going to take some serious string-pulling to sort something out at the last minute. Plus, there was a particular film in the festival I had wanted to watch the next day, but it was sold out. So actually there was nothing to keep me in Jeonju overnight. And Jeonju was crazily, unpleasantly rammed with tourists and festival-goers. Traffic everywhere was at a standstill. The city had the hallmarks of a dystopian nightmare to escape from, the polar opposite from the relaxing place suggested by its Slow City designation. My road trip companions had already made their plans, knowing in advance that accommodation there was non-existent (I had wondered where their bags were when they picked me up that morning…). Insoon and Jeongsuk were happy to catch the bus back to Seoul after dinner in Jeonju. Chris, on the other hand, was planning to stay with a longstanding friend on the West Coast. In Taean, in fact. And the next day she was going to look in at the Street Arts Festival in Ansan – she had actually been there the previous week for a pre-festival symposium.
Of course, it would not take a genius to predict that I rudely invited myself to tag along with Chris, and abandoned any thoughts of staying in Jeonju for a second longer than absolutely necessary. A couple of phone calls later I was booked in at a pension somewhere in Taean County. Chris was happy to drop me there on the way to her friend’s house. I was thrilled at the unexpected adventure of being dumped in a mysterious location in the middle of the night, and even happier when I woke up the following day to find myself thirty seconds walk from one of the most idyllic beaches that I have ever seen anywhere. Almost totally empty, even on Children’s Day.
To compound things further, when Chris and her friend turned up to collect me mid-morning (I almost sent them away, because I didn’t want to leave), they suggested a visit to a local attraction: Chollipo Arboretum. Just half an hour’s walk from my pension. And what a stunning place it is. Really, totally stunning – the sort of place to which no photograph can do adequate justice.
To cap it all, if that were possible, I had not realised that Ansan was the home of Danwon High School, who lost so many pupils in the Sewol disaster. The opening performance of the Ansan Street Arts Festival was a 70-minute long piece, both tear-jerking and uplifting, devoted to their memory. It was a truly mind-blowing 24 hours.
There’s more. When planning my trip I had intended to join the RASKB trip to the Mungyeong Tea Bowl Festival on its opening day, a Saturday, and then return to Seoul and bide my time, maybe with a side trip to Jeonju, before finding a temple to visit on Buddha’s Birthday. Then I would pay my regular visit to Sancheong. Basically, the three things I wanted to fit in to my trip this year, other than the obligatory time in Seoul and Sancheong, were Mungyeong, Jeonju and Buddha’s Birthday. And the vague order of doing things was to be: Seoul -> Mungyeong -> Jeonju -> Buddha’s Birthday -> Sancheong -> Seoul.
When my friend in Sancheong heard this, my calendar immediately got hijacked. The man who built the kiln in her front yard is on the organising committee of the Mungyeong tea bowl festival. She would take me to the festival, and her kiln-maker would show us round, on a week-day when it was less crowded. Further, it turns out that this same man is the grandson of a noted monk at Bongamsa, a famous temple in Mungyeong that only opens to the public once a year, on Buddha’s Birthday. He knows all the monks there because he visits his grandfather’s grave in the temple precincts. So he could escort us to the temple in addition to welcoming us to the festival (and I didn’t know then what a truly special experience both visits would be). And when I heard that my Sancheong friend’s teacher had the opening reception for his solo show in Busan the day the RASKB was going to be in Mungyeong I knew I simply had to abandon the RASKB because he has shown me so much hospitality and friendship over the years.
And if I could persuade my Sancheong friends, when driving home from Busan, to stop off at the Gaya kingdom royal tombs in Haman County, that would tick off another item on my personal bucket list of things to visit in Korea. The order of my visit was settled: Seoul -> Busan -> Haman -> Sancheong -> Mungyeong -> Buddha’s Birthday -> Jeonju -> Seoul (with Taean and Ansan inserted between Jeonju and Seoul, though I didn’t know it at the time).
I’m sure the RASKB members had a great time in Mungyeong, but there were 40 in their group, 3 in mine, and I don’t like crowds. There will be plenty of other opportunities to join in one of their cultural excursions on future trips (indeed, my trips are often designed around their excursions).
And, although from the above it might seem I will never want to go to Jeonju ever again, nothing could be further from the truth (provided I am not there at peak holiday time). A trip to the Sori festival (maybe combined with a visit to the Hwaeomsa Sacred Music Festival further South); to their upcoming intangible cultural heritage festival; and to spend more time sampling the food of what is meant to be the culinary capital of Korea.
But I must learn from this year’s trip. Although it’s good to plan in advance, I must leave plenty of time and be prepared to be flexible, because this year it was the unplanned and un-newsworthy experiences that were the most special. And the good times with friends new and old.
Thank you to all the friends who made this particular trip so special, some of whom are in the above gallery, some of whom are not.