|Folk village or living set? Historical accuracy
or pop culture appeal? There is no shortage of recreated villages and palaces
dotting the Korean countryside and punctuating cityscapes. The close quarters
and low gateways are pretty much a prerequisite to the menu of tourist aperitifs.
After a while, curious visitors run the risk of having them blur together
— the “seen one temple, seen ‘em all” syndrome.
Set in the relatively pastoral Yangju area north of Seoul, Dae Jang Geum
Theme Park (named after the successful MBC Drama) is a draw for fans of
the series, but does it measure up for TV dilettantes?
In brief, because there are enough twists over the course of the single-season
series to make M. Night Shyamalan blush, Dae Jang Geum follows the adventures
of the title character, Seo Jang Geum — the “Dae” title being bestowed
later in life — loosely based on a early Joseon Dynasty-era figure as
she rises through the court’s ranks from kitchen apprentice to medicine
woman to royal doctor.
If you thought Dr. Quinn was met with consternation from the locals, try
being a low-ranking woman (having even undergone exile at one point) in
a 15th-century court.
The show gained in popularity part because of its difference from previous
period dramas, this time adding an element of humor and correlations to
modern tribulations faced by young folks chasing their dreams.
It has also been hailed as one of the hallmark exports of Hallyu, the
“Korean Wave” of pop culture exports to other (mainly Asian, but spreading)
countries. On the day of the author’s visit, a rather cold and dismal
afternoon, the parking lot was still full of tour buses and the grounds
fairly swamped with Chinese fans thrilled to be able to explore in person
the very place they had seen some of their favorite plot lines come to
Entirely Historic, But Great for Photos
First and foremost, keep in mind that the now-park was built to be a functional
film set. Buildings are not constructed with historical methods and materials;
on camera they appear to be hewn by the same hands that toiled to create
some of the country’s still-standing semi-archaeological draws.
Several of the buildings still have remnants of filming past within; buckets
of cooking oil and bottles of water can be seen through the greasy plastic
sheets(,) which serve as window and doorway coverings.
Counter that, however, with the fact that nearly every space can be entered.
Sure, you might have to step over some rubble from an apparently hasty
retreat from the set, but you can also get right in there for some great
The site is dotted with signage detailing some significant events that
occurred or lines that were muttered by characters at each spot. The cage
where Jang Geum kept the golden pheasant? Yup, you can get right in there
and breathe the same musty straw that Jang Geum (and, of course, the pheasant)
The prison where she was held, weeping on a harsh, rainy evening? Go ahead
and pick your way down the gully behind the wall — you can snap a pic
of yourself wailing in the very same cell.
There are some regular events for entertainment as well; traditional
costumes — replete with elaborate wigs for women é are at your disposal
for a 5,000 won photo-op. There are also some sports and games, such as
archery, hoop-driving and eunori, as well as the teeter-totter and tuho
(throwing arrows into a pot or metal cylinder) that are popular hands-on
pastimes at other villages and during cultural events.
Fit for a King
one of the major themes of both the show and the park is that of royal court
cuisine. After all, it is what Jang Geum originally came to the palace grounds
to do, and what was the source of a lot of the drama and mystery of the
series, with the attempted poisoning at the hands of the Queen Mother.
Toxic substances or not, royal cuisine consisted of 12different side dishes,
although the actual number of treats spread over three tables was usually
much larger. Not too shabby, considering a commoner might have enjoyed their
rice and soup with one or two hard-come-by extras.
Nowadays, of course,
any old serf can walk into any number of specialized restaurants and order
up a table full of dishes fit for a king or a queen. At Dae Jang Geum
Theme Park, visitors can not only have a glimpse at the interior of an
early-Joseon kitchen, and are invited to tuck into the regal grub at the
on-site restaurant (near the gift shop at the entrance).
Fresh, pan-fried and pickled veggies; chilled, dried and roasted meat
or fish; a type of porridge or gruel; poached eggs, and sashimi all jostle
for space on the low-slung tables of old. Choose your drinks wisely, as
real estate is at a premium with this type of meal!
Due to the wide variety of side dishes, all immaculately prepared and
presented, the average visitor will be sure to find something that pleases
their palate. Pickled lotus roots not doing anything for you? Try the
fresh sprouts in the next dish over. Cold fish not your cup of tea? Stretch
out those arms for the steamy beef at the other end of the table.
Transportation to and from is fairly easy. Getting off at Yangju Station
(line 1), it’s about a 15,000 won taxi fare (you may be able to negotiate
10,000), or 15 minutes on a local bus. Not many taxis seem to swing by the
park, so for a speedy return the best bet is to walk to the bus stop at
the end of the entrance’s long driveway, across the road from the park entrance.
The park is open for exploration 09:30-17:00, seven days a week, with an
admission fee of 5,000 for adults, 3,000 for children and 4,000 per person
for groups of 10 or more. English service is available at (031)849-5141,
and if no English-speaking operator is available when you call, leave your
phone number and they’ll call back promptly.
All in all, a nice day out which may be enhanced if you have the chance
to catch the series on DVD (English subs available) beforehand.
Written by Andrew Langendorfer
The article courtesy of Seoul magazine