|Jeonju’s Lyrical Past|
Jeonju’s Lyrical Past
A Taste of Old Korea in the Cultural Heartland
Walking though the alleyways of Jeonju is like stepping into a more gentile era of culture and sophistication. Stroll amidst the handsome curved tile roofs of the city’s historic Jeonju Hanok Village, for example, and you’ll discover something new at each turn. A teahouse here; a gallery there. The sounds of pansori are coming from beyond a clay and tile fence. The southwestern town of Jeonju is one of the nation’s most important centers for Korean traditional arts and culture. If you’re looking for a taste of the elegance of Korea’s yesteryear, you’ve come to the right place. Whether it’s the Jeonju Hanok Village, taking in a performance of pansori (lyrical musical storytelling), eating a dish of the famed Jeonju bibimbap (a mixed rice bowl) or meditating in the important Buddhist monastery of Geumsan-sa, Jeonju’s got plenty for everyone.
Captain of the Honam Plain
Jeonju has, for ages, been the political, economic and cultural center of the Jeolla provinces. Although in modern times it's been eclipsed in size by the city of Gwangju, Jeonju remains a compelling destination in the region. Jeonju sits in the heart of the Honam Plain, a wide stretch of lowland that possesses Korea’s most fertile farmland and, hence, is known as the breadbasket (or rice bowl, as it were) of Korea. Not surprisingly, therefore, Jeonju is rightfully famous for having the best food in the country, with the city’s bibimbap acquiring particular acclaim.
Jeonju’s prime location naturally endowed the town with much economic and political importance as a market and administrative capital for the region. The ruling family of the Joseon kingdom, the Jeonju Yi family, hailed from the town, a fact evidenced by the presence of the Gyeonggijeon Shrine, which holds a portrait of Yi Seong-gye, the founder of the dynasty. Even today, the city is the administrative capital of Jeollabuk-do and the region’s center for business, culture and education.
Like other ancient cities in Korea, the winds of development have blown strong, dramatically changing Jeonju’s urban landscape. Gone are the imposing fortress walls that used to protect the city; now the downtown is dominated by concrete and glass office towers that you'd see in any other major Korean city. Nevertheless, large pockets of Jeonju's past still exist, and the town retains its well-earned reputation for the traditional arts, most notably in paper crafts and music.
Jeonju Hanok Village
No place epitomizes old Jeonju better than Jeonju Hanok Village.
Located in Pungnam-dong, near the old Pungnammun Gate in the southeast corner of the city, Jeonju Hanok Village is home to one of Korea's largest collections of Korean traditional hanok homes. Here, you can leisurely stroll through block upon block of hundreds of elegant wooden Korean homes, many of which have now been converted into guesthouses, museums, galleries and teahouses. You could literally spend the day wandering through the neighborhood’s romantic, clay wall-lined alleyways, discovering the neighborhood’s treasures.
Like Bukchon Hanok Village in Seoul, most of Jeonju’s hanok homes were built in the 1920s and 1930s, as Jeonju’s population increased in the wake of the city’ s modernization. Likewise, the hanok here have been modified to suit the urban environment — they are so closely clumped together, for example, that when seen from higher vantage points like the Omokdae Pavilion, their roof eaves almost seem to touch, forming a sea of curved black tile roofs.
Jeonju Hanok Village is home to several treasures and historic sites you’d be wise to visit while you're in the neighborhood. At the entrance of the village is the Gyeonggijeon Shrine, a wonderful example of Joseon-era Confucian architecture. The shrine holds the portrait of Yi Seong-gye, the local son who founded the Joseon kingdom in 1392, as well as portraits of several other later kings. The current complex was built in 1616.
Across from the Gyeonggijeon Shrine is Jeondong Cathedral, a local landmark and major Catholic pilgrimage site. The imposing church, built by French missionaries in 1914, beautifully mixes Romanesque and Byzantine elements - it’s well worth taking a peek inside. Also nearby is Pungnammun Gate, which used to serve as the south gate of the city. It’s Jeonju’s only surviving city gate, the other three having been demolished in 1905. The gate has much in common with Seoul’s landmark Namdaemun Gate.
Jeonju Hanok Village isn’t a place to simply look at, however. It’s a place to experience.
Several of the hanok have been converted into places where tourists can experience Korean traditional culture and living. The Jeonju Hanok Living Experience Center (063-287-6300, www.jjhanok.com), for instance, gives visitors the chance to spend a night in a Korean traditional hanok, and offers classes on Korean traditional etiquette, Korean arts and crafts, and the tea ceremony. The Yangsajae (063-282-4959, www.jeonjutour.co.kr) is another guesthouse offering traditional Korean accommodations for the evening. For weary travelers, there’s nothing quite as relaxing as reclining on the floor of a Korean traditional home, looking out upon a courtyard garden or simply gazing at the handsome wood and clay ceiling above.
Enjoy a Walking Tour of Jeonju Hanok Village
The Sounds of Old Korea
Jeonju has a rich heritage in the Korean traditional arts, especially in music. And you’d be doing yourself a disservice if you didn’t take in some of this musical culture during your stay.
The Jeolla provinces are known as the heartland of Korean traditional music. To this day, many of the country’s finest musicians are from this region.
Jeonju, in particular, is famous as the home of Korea’s pansori tradition. Pansori has often been compared to “folk opera,” or the bluegrass tradition of American Appalachia. It’s a form of musical storytelling featuring a single vocalist accompanied by a drummer, and is particularly representative of Korea’s musical culture.
The massive Sori Arts Center of Jeollabuk-do, located in Deokjin-dong, is dedicated to Jeonju’s musical heritage. The state-of-the-art facility, with both indoor and outdoor stages, is home to the Jeonju Sori Festival, an autumn celebration of music that is Korea’s preeminent “world music” festival. The heart of the festival, however, is pansori, so if you’ve wanted to experience this soulfully expressive art form live, this would be your chance.
Located nearby is the Jeollabuk-do Korean Traditional Performing Arts Center, home to one of Korea’s best traditional music orchestras, as well as outstanding traditional dancers and pansori vocalists.
→ For more information on Jeonju’s Sound of Voice and Music Festival, click here
The Land of Bibimbap
Many Korean associate Jeonju with good food. And there’s a reason for this - the local cuisine is simply outstanding. It's so good, in fact, that once you’ve eaten here, eating anywhere else is likely to be disappointing in comparison.
The star of Jeonju’s cuisine is the Jeonju bibimbap. A representative dish of the Joseon era and one of the most popular of Korean foods today, Jeonju bibimbap - rice mixed with vegetables, meat, egg and about 30 other ingredients - is packed with flavor and nutrients, and served with an almost intimidating number of side dishes.
There are numerous places where you can taste Jeonju bibimbap - any taxi driver could probably recommend you one - but the most famous of Jeonju’s bibimbap houses is Gogung (063-251-3211) in Deokjin-dong, not far from the Sori Arts Center of Jeollabuk-do and Jeollabuk-do Korean Traditional Performing Arts Center. Here, a bibimbap will run you 10,000 won, but oh, is it worth it.
Once you’ve had enough of downtown Jeonju’s charms, you might wish - time permitting - to take a short half-hour bus ride (take the #89 bus from Pungnammun) out of town to nearby Gimje, home to the massive Buddhist monastery of Geumsan-sa, one of Korea's most important Buddhist temples.
It’s believed that the temple was founded in the first year of the devoutly Buddhist King Beop of Baekje, or 599 AD. From 762 to 766, Precept Master Jinpyo, one of early Korea’s greatest Buddhist monks, expanded the temple into a major monastery. During the Japanese invasion of 1592, most of the temple was burnt to the ground, so many of the temple’s current structures date from the reconstruction of 1635.
Geumsan-sa is a treasure trove of Korean cultural treasures, both of stone and wood. The centerpiece of Geumsan-sa is the awe-inspiring Mireukjeon Hall. Designated National Treasure No. 62, this massive structure is the only remaining three-story traditional structure in Korea. The building was constructed to house an equally massive gilded statue of the Maitreya Buddha; its roof is so heavy that each floor requires separate support pillars. The current hall dates from the 1635 reconstruction, although it’s been repaired several times since.
The Mireukjeon is only one of several important cultural properties in the monastery’s possession. Several stone pagodas, stone lanterns and wooden halls have also been designated national treasures by the government. The mountain on whose slopes the temple rests, Mt. Moaksan, is considered a spiritually important mountain by Korea’s shamanist community. You should set aside at least half a day if you're to appreciate Geumsan-sa fully.
Written and photographed by Robert Koehler
The Article courtesy of SEOUL magazine