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DAMYANG - A garden without bamboo is like a day without sunshine
A Garden Without Bamboo Is Like a Day Without Sunshine
Soswaewon GardenTowns, cities and provinces around Korea have a knack for finding a niche - a product, a particular cuisine or even a mud festival to attach themselves to. Some have historic connections, some don't, but whatever the connection is, once it has been made in the hearts and minds of the people, an unbreakable bond forms, and that place, for better or worse, is forever entwined with said cultural property. Jeonju has bibimbap, Boryeong has its mud festival, and Damyang-gun in Jeollanam-do has bamboo.
Bamboo may be universally associated with sword wielding ninjas, crouching tigers and hidden dragons, but Damyang, the northernmost point on the Korean Peninsula where bamboo grows in abundance, has cornered the market as far as Korea goes. There are plenty of attractions in Damyang, but the bamboo is inescapable and seems to pervade every aspect of life here.
Not to be confused with the similar sounding Danyang in Chungcheongbuk-do, Damyang is a beautifully green county, teeming with nature and history. A short hop from Gwangju, it is a place where the specters of scholars live on in the pavilions and gardens that bear their names.

Garden Tranquility: Soswaewon
clay wall at SoswaewonSoswaewon, a spectacular garden in the south of the county, was built by Yang San-bo (1503–1557). At 17, he realized that his life as a government official was over after his teacher, Jo Kwang-jo, was exiled and subsequently died in disgrace. Yang relinquished his position in protest, moved to Damyang to build his garden and retired into nature. The garden is actually more of a complex, with beautiful pavilions that ooze tranquility. The design uses nature to its fullest potential, and the overriding feeling is that every rock, branch and breeze has been made that way. Water flows under a bridge and into a small pond, while the bamboo leaves from a small forest rustle in the background, canceling out any 21st century noise. The energy created in the garden seems to caress and persuade you to sit and reflect on life, while the pavilions invite you to sit and contemplate your place in the universe, making it so that you never want to leave.
In his will, Yang stipulated that Soswaewon was to be retained in the family and not sold, and so it has been in the same family for 15 generations. The garden has been renovated several times by descendants of Yang San-bo, notably after the 16th century Japanese invasions, but its original nirvana-like qualities remain. Times may have changed in the outside world, but once you step into the garden you are transported back 500 years to a place where forward thinking was the order of the day. You can sit in pavilions where some of the most distinguished writers and poets of the Joseon period were inspired. You can also see what inspired them and know that after the 500 years that have passed, the spirit is just as Yang San-bo intended.

The Scent of Bamboo
JungnogwonDamyang truly is a place to experience Korean culture at close quarters, and the recently opened Jukhyang-ri village provides a great place to stay and continue the theme of harmony with nature. Set right next to the Jungnogwon bamboo forest, it offers five traditional Korean-style lodgings. The liberal use of space and positioning of the village near the bamboo forest, along with a small lake and its overhanging willow trees, give the area a feeling of calmness that helps
you drift off to sleep on the ondol-heated floor before rising early to walk through the forest of bamboo nearby. The bamboo forest of Jungnogwon is billed as a theme park and comes complete with plastic panda bears, but the feeling that you are in a theme park can be slightly diminished if you get there early enough in the morning to avoid crowds. Alternatively, there are also some paths worn into the hills around Jukhyang-ri village that offer bamboo without the theme park atmosphere. Get up early and go for a wander.
For more greenery but less bamboo, you can head north toward Geumseong Fortress. The mountain fortress, located atop Sanseongsan Mountain, is believed to have been built during Korea's Three Kingdoms period, but accounts are mixed. The fortress has been built and rebuilt, most recently due to the 1894 Donghak Uprising when most of the buildings were burnt to the ground, and even though only remnants remain, it is a pleasant walk and an excuse to pamper yourself at the nearby Damyang Resort.

Spa Time
The tourist hotel and luxurious spa of the resort complex sit in the shadow of the mountain and are great for resting aching limbs after the climb up to the fortress. The restaurant of the hotel looks out toward the mountain and offers a hint at the views that await you if you make it to the top. The climb can be done in 30 minutes if you are full of energy, and closer to an hour if you stroll. Although the spa and hotel are part of the same complex, visitors to the area can use the spa for a modest 7,000 won, and hotel guests go free. The spa has the unique idea of rotating the changing rooms weekly between men and women by moving the sign from one identical changing room to the other in order to avoid a buildup of “scent.” There is a large outdoor swimming pool and a hot spa as well as the usual jjimjilbang facilities, all surrounded by gloriously green mountainsides. There are also private family spas that offer all kinds of medicinal extract extras billed as being good for a plethora of ailments. The resort is popular, however, and once hosted former President Kim Dae-jung in a suite that now bears his name, so expect to book in advance and pay presidential prices.

Bamboo Rice and Other Delicacies
Bamboo Rice and Other Delicacies
Of course, Damyang has its representative foods, too, and is famed for its tteok galbi, which is incredibly flavorsome and tender. The secret to tteok galbi is a combination of primary and secondary cuts — the primary cut being left on the actual rib bone, and the secondary meat minced and formed into a cake around the bone. The result is amazingly succulent and sweet meat. Damyang's other well-known food, daetongbap, is rice cooked in bamboo. A bamboo stalk filled with rice, Korean dates and other choice ingredients is covered with hanji paper and steamed for four hours, allowing the delicate but distinct flavor of the bamboo to permeate the rice, after which you can keep the vessel as a souvenir. There are plenty of other bamboo-based dishes to be had, too, and the salad of raw bamboo with spicy vinegar is deliciously crunchy and spicy.
Damyang-gun is a lush haven of nature where the spirits of philosophers roam the countryside and live on in pavilions, gardens and bamboo forests. It is a place where you can feel Korean history by sitting in the pavilions as great scholars once did. Damyang is great for escaping city life, and its proximity to Gwangju makes it very accessible. Given the area's relatively small population of around 45,000, public transport is not the most reliable or efficient way to get around. Hiring a car in Gwangju is probably the most cost-effective way to get the most out of your time in Damyang, although countless tourists have survived using buses and taxis.


Deogin-gwan • Damyang's most popular ddeok galbi restaurant. Also offers daetongbap, located in the north of the county (061 381-7881, 7882) (Korean)

  Dul Pool • Another good ddeok galbi

restaurant just north of Gwangju-ho Lake in the south of the county.

Places to Stay

Rooms at Damyang Resort start at 159,000 won and vary according to season, so check before booking.
(Korean, English)

   A stay at Jukhyang-ri village costs

between 120,000 and 200,000 won per night, but even the smaller rooms can sleep about six people each, and the larger ones around 12. Prices also rise during the summer, so be sure to check.

Additional Information

Damyang has a bamboo festival in early May that dates back some years to the feast traditionally held at the end of the bambooplanting season. (Korean)

Getting There

The easiest way to get to Damyang is via Gwangju. The KTX for Gwangju departs from Yongsan Station – the trip takes about three hours. From Gwangju Intercity Bus Terminal, take local bus No. 225, which will take you past Soswaewon (trip takes about 40 minutes).
Otherwise, you can just take an intercity bus from Gwangju to Damyang – most of the other destinations above are within easy taxi range.


- Written and photographed
by Rob McGovern

-The article courtesy of
Seoul magazine 

      Related Column:
Samjicheon Village and the delights of the Damyang region 
Date 07/16/2009

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