I went to Namansan fortress and Hwa Fortress with Korea’s Senior Public Diplomacy Group, a part of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. I also went to their International Folk Dance and Music Performance held at the National Museum.
Being on their mailing list, I got an invite to join a private over night trip to Geochang, South Korea, about halfway between Busan and Daejeon. The main focus of the trip was to get a feel for traditional life in Korea during the Joseon era.
We stayed in a traditional style house built around 1800 in the style typical of the Joseon Literati. These houses are simple and beautiful. I would love to construct a small house in this style. Nearly all of the exterior walls open to create the feeling of an open pavilion and provide tons of natural light. the fire from the kitchen also feeds hot air through a series of under ground chambers that heat the floor in the winter.
The setting of the house was rural and peaceful. A girl in her mid to late 20’s, one of the younger residents in the house had recently given up her hectic city life and retreated to her family’s place. I felt like I wanted to join. I imagined myself on the porch with some tea and my sketch book and not a sound around.
We had some activities planned; After lunch we headed to an apple orchard to pick apples to give the ancestors during a Confucian ceremony that would take place later. Because it was a little early in the season for picking apples we were allowed only 4 each. They continued to emphasize the 4 apple limit and the fact that we should not eat them however after the picking they said we could take them home with us. They were the sweetest apples I have ever eaten.
From there our driver took us to Suseungdae Valley, a spot that was popular among confucian scholars back in the day. they would spend their free time reading, singing , or drawing in the mountains. Originally the valley’s name was Susongdae. the meaning came from a historical event where a general sent off troops from the valley and people worried if they would return. Later the name was changed to mean, “full of excellent things”.
In the valley we were met by some Korean women in Hanbok they performed Arirang, a type of traditional Korean music Then encouraged us to join. I really dislike singing in public much less when I don’t know what I am even trying to sing. I am not sure if the picture captures how annoyed I am that i was forced on stage. “Dance monkey, dance!” at least we got to enjoy some delicious Seonpyeong (rice cakes stuffed with honey and sesame oil)
From the Suseungdae we were taken back to the house where we would be staying. we were given outfits, like Confuscian scholars would have worn and then lead in a ceremony to offer our respects to the ancestors. This involved lighting incense to invoke the spirit and pouring wine for them. The interesting thing learned here is that most shrines or temples will have 3 doors. you always enter through the right door and exit through the left door; the center is only used by the spirit. I also learned something about the shape of the columns used in construction elements in designing parks and gardens. Circles represent heaven and squares earth so usually temples use round columns. Sometimes you see a square lotus pond with a circular island… heaven on Earth.
On the way out of the park there was a playground with two of those huge Korean swings. I always saw my kids at school standing on the seat of the swings on the playground they do tricks like turn around or sit on the seat like a horse, twist the ropes even two or three people go on the same swing . I had never tried the huge Korean version of a swing until this trip. It is really fun and quite a work out. My shoulders and arms were sore the next day.
After the ceremony everyone was getting hungry but there was still one more activity before we could eat. Supplies were brought out and we were shown the traditional Korean way of binding books. I would never have noticed any difference but there isl Japan and China use 4 holes for binding but Korea uses 5. This might have been my favorite activity. It would have been cooler if we were given blank paper to make our own book to keep. I am planning to incorporate this into my letterboxes.
Dinner was delicious and then we went back outside for a concert by a young lady who played several traditional instruments and sang more arirang. I feel like a kid being forced to eat peas, the more I am pushed the more I resist. i really wanted to try out the Daegeum, the huge wooden flute. The Haegeum was also interesting, a sort of two string fiddle made of Eight different materials.
In the morning we packed up and went to the Omija festival. It was the harvest time for a small red berry found on vines in the mountains, also know as Schisandra . Now it is farmed in some areas such and Geochang. The berry gets its name “Oh” means five. so it is the berry with five flavors; Sweet, Sour, Bitter, Spicy, and Salty. I am not sure I can pick out all five but it has a very distinct and almost familiar flavor. I got to try the fresh ripe berries and also some alcoholic beverage made from the berries.
The mayor of Geochang was at the very…rural… festival along with about 150 other towns people. being the only foreigners naturally he introduced us to the crowd while on stage and then came to offer us drinks and food before having his photographers go to town on us.
There was also a Samulnori Performance, which I hear is a sort of ritual dance and music to pray for a good harvest. I have seen this preformed several times but tis was the first time that I have seen the Pankut dancers with such long ribbons on their hats.
From there is was back on the road to Seoul in hopes of beating all the traffic. The few weeks before Chuseok can be hell because everyone goes out to their hometowns to prepare for the celebration and then heads back into Seoul. The rest stops were jam packed and the roads were sometimes at a stand still.