The living poetry of a bamboo forest

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The living poetry of a bamboo forest

DAMYANG, South Jeolla
Literati have described the scenery as “living poetry.”
The sound of bamboo leaves rustling against each other in the occasional whisper of a spring breeze has won the hearts of so many intellectuals over the centuries that jeongja, or pagodas ― where political idealists met and debated politics or recited poems ― have become the town’s tourist icons. To this day, Damyang remains a home to gasa literature, a popular form of Korean verses that mixes poems with music.
In fact there is something irresistibly romantic about bamboo. It invites mental drifting.
For centuries the image of the tall, slender bamboo has been compared with the integrity of an individual. The bamboo’s roots are so strong and deeply enmeshed in the earth that Japanese geologists used to advise their people to escape to bamboo forests during earthquakes.
The curious fate of a bamboo ― a grass that lives up to 120 years and mysteriously dies after a sudden flowering ― has appeared in ancient romantic poems as a metaphor to suggest how a life should end.
Here in Damyang, known as a bamboo habitat since the Three Kingdoms period (57 B.C.-A.D. 668), hundreds of wildlife photographers rush in every June to capture the images of fresh bamboo shoots, which can grow up to 80 centimeters (32 inches) a day after it rains.
And rain it does in Damyang, a small town in the southwest of Korea that is home to 20 percent of the nation’s bamboo forests.
The abundant rainfall in the region ― an average of 1,000 millimeters a year ― and the high mountains surrounding Damyang protect the forests from heavy wind and create the perfect conditions for bamboo. During the budding season, April to June, over 300 millimeters of rain falls, helping the bamboo grow.
In the past, villagers celebrated a special Arbor Day just before the summer monsoons. People planted bamboo trees and baked rice pancakes in the mountains. The tradition, however, was abolished in the 1920s by the Japanese colonial authorities because the celebrations often turned into political gatherings for an anti-Japanese movement.
At Bamboo Theme Park, about 10 kilometers (6 miles) from downtown Damyang, six species of bamboo create an impressive forest that stretches about 10 hectares (25 acres).
Before starting down the long path (a walk of about 20 minutes), hikers are encouraged to engage in a simple ritual: drinking a gourd filled with spring water at the forest’s entrance to cleanse the bad blood from their bodies.
The walkway is mesmerizing. It’s bliss if you happen to visit the park after a rain because you can see budding shoots ranging from the size of a thumb to a lamppost. A full-grown bamboo is about 6 centimeters thick, with each segment about 7 to 10 centimeters long between the joints. A young shoot is normally covered with chocolate-brown skin, which naturally peels after its green stem grows to its full length.
In addition to its opulent forest and pleasant drive with metasequoia trees on both sides of the road, tiny Damyang serves up a bonus ― its food and drinks. Bamboo shoots are rich in calcium and amino acids and are used in Oriental medicine to enhance night vision and lessen high blood pressure.
The history of bamboo wine, which is made locally, is unusual. It is said to have originated with the servant of an aristocrat who dug a pit in a bamboo field to bury a bowl of spoiled rice in an effort to hide his mishandling of the family’s crops. Weeks later, the master noticed the peculiar scent of fermenting rice in his garden and found a bubbling liquid in the hole. He tasted the juice and bamboo wine has been Damyang’s specialty ever since.
The wine is said to be so tasty that the governor of Pyeongyang during the Joseon Dynasty asked his followers to boil a soup with a bamboo basket so he could sip a liquid that reminded him of Damyang’s bamboo wines.
At Chuseong Goeul (061-383-3011), visitors can taste or purchase bamboo wines and other regional drinks.
The local food also makes Damyang a popular destination. There are about 800 restaurants in Damyang County, serving a town with less than 52,000 people.
Among the many restaurants, Han Sang-geun’s Bamboo Rice (061-382-1999) offers a full-course bamboo meal for 8,000 won ($6.50). Its specialty is a bamboo rice keg, which is rice steamed with bamboo extracts and served in a thick bamboo container with dates and ginkgo nuts sprinkled on top. The meal comes with a soup made with slices of bamboo shoots and another made with steamed shoots mixed with crushed sesame.
If you want something more unusual, check out Minsok Sikdang (061-381-2515), a 50-year-old restaurant in downtown Damyang. It specializes in bamboo dishes ranging from fresh bamboo shoot salads to bamboo pickles that are fermented in soybeans.
The bamboo’s fresh shoots are so delicate that they need to be eaten within a day of being cut to avoid a bitter aftertaste. Bamboo shoots have a crisp texture and sweet flavor. When eaten raw, their stems can be a bit too tough to chew. Preparing bamboo is also rather tricky, which is one reason why it’s more often sold in cans than fresh.
If you are not bambooed out yet, you might want to try sipping some bamboo tea in a hot bamboo bath.
And if you get tired of bamboo, visit Sosaewon and some of the town’s famous pagodas. But before you start looking, make sure you get a general introduction to each pavilion at the Gasa Literature Museum. There are about 15 pagodas in Damyang, and each has a different flavor.
Sosaewon oversees an impressive view of a garden and a valley below the wall. Up to 48 poems were written to praise the beauty of Sosaewon during the Joseon Dynasty. Songgangjeong, a pagoda commemorating the poet Jeong Cheol, offers a walkway full of pine trees.
You can't travel to Damyang without thinking of handmade crafts. The bamboo crafts market, a 300-year-old open market that opens on days that end with the number 2 or 5, offers bamboo mats, fans, combs, baskets and pillows. Though the size of the bamboo market is not even as half as big as it was during the 1970s due to the spread of plastic and cheaper bamboo imports rushing from China, the quality of the Damyang bamboo is said to be superior with a stronger and smoother surface.
A timeless favorite is the jukbuin, which translates as “bamboo wife.” The jukbuin is a long pillow made from loosely woven bamboo. It’s designed for men to wrap their arms and legs around when they sleep. People use it to lower their body temperature in the summer or sleep on their sides if they have back problems.
It’s interesting to note that long ago a son and father weren’t allowed to share the same jukbuin because the pillows were considered to be a replacement for an evening partner.

Getting there, finding rooms

To get to Damyang by public transportation, take a bus from the Express Bus Terminal in southern Seoul (on subway line No. 3).
Buses leave for Damyang twice a day, at 10 a.m. and 4 p.m., and the trip takes about three-and-a-half hours.
You can also take a bus or a train to Gwangju, which depart much more frequently, and then go from Gwangju to Damyang by bus (about a 40-minute trip).
If you want to save money in Damyang, write down the times of all village buses at the Damyang bus terminal.
Taxis are expensive ― the base fare starts at 2,300 won and jumps 160 won every minute. A one-way trip from downtown Damyang to Bamboo Theme Park (061-383-9291) can easily cost you 9,000 won.
If you’re planning to stay the night check the Green Park Motel (061-383-2820), Golden River (061-383-9669) or Palace Hotel (061-381-6363).
Make sure they know you’re staying overnight because most motels here charge by the hour (we told you the bamboo forests were romantic). It’s a good idea to check the room’s condition, too.
Bamboo Health Land, about a five-minute walk from downtown Damyang, also offers rooms on its top floors with a bamboo bath and dry sauna on the lower floors. Visitors who are traveling with children may also consider renting a two-story cabin overlooking Damyang Lake for 100,000 won (weekday price).

For more information call Damyang’s culture and tourism department at 061-380-3223.

by Park Soo-mee
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