A princely home for archery buffs and sore bottoms
Yangnyeong could have been king, but his father, the third king of the Joseon Dynasty, abruptly granted his realm to his youngest son. Sejong went on to become the most beloved ruler in Korean history ― during his time on the throne, the Korean script, the first rain gauge, a sundial and the printing press were domestically invented ― and his older brother retired to this small town in Gyeonggi province to while away his time chasing women, drinking and practicing archery.
Nearly six centuries later, Yangnyeong’s name is remembered only in this small community near Icheon. Even its name refers to the prince’s arrival. “Gun” comes from Daegun, meaning “prince,” and “ryang” comes from the Korean pronunciation of the Chinese character for “pillar.” The pillar in this sense is the bridge the townspeople were said to have hastily erected to allow the prince to cross the stream that bordered the town.
During the prince’s exile, the story goes, he wandered around Korea until he came to Gunryang. The town sat in the center of a wide plain of rice fields ― records say Icheon’s land was so fertile all its rice was offered to the royal family ― and Yangnyeong was impressed.
“He ended up staying here for 16 years because he liked it so much,” said Kim Gil-jae, 52, a rice farmer who looked proud of the town’s story.
On a hill across the rice paddies was a muujeong (it’s pronounced “moo-oo-jeong”), a wooden pavilion where farmers pray to heaven for rain in times of drought. Yangnyeong is said to have enjoyed climbing up the hill to see the immense yellow fields of ripening rice. A signboard next to the pavilion stated that the prince enjoyed archery there.
Perhaps realizing that hills are not the best place for normal people to practice their shooting, the town has an archery range next to the rice paddies. Freshly painted wooden targets stick up out of the ground. Visitors can pick up one of the compound bows, which are decorated with feathers, and let fly a few rubber-tipped arrows. Obviously, with a rubber tip an arrow won’t stick into the bulls-eye, but it makes a satisfying “bonk!” that reverberates far and loud.
“This [shooting arrows] is a palace sport,” Mr. Kim said. “More proof that Yangnyeong stayed here.” Actually, few people dispute that the prince stayed in the area, but the archery range was built only three years ago, a fact clearly stated on a sign posted directly behind Mr. Kim.
The townspeople are obviously proud of their adopted royal son. Though historians have typically viewed the prince as a philandering drunk, the impression a visitor gets from the town’s brochures and tourist information makes Yangnyeong look like a wise fool: After all, it wasn’t uncommon for kings to kill their brothers to avoid being usurped.
Yangnyeong, after all, did escape several bloody palace feuds ― including the execution of every member in the clan of King Sejong’s first wife ― by living out in the countryside all his life.
The people of Gunryang take archery very seriously. When I took a bow off of a wooden rack and pulled an arrow against the string, Kim Byeong-jeon, 65, ran up suddenly, crying, “No, no, you don’t pull the strings like that!” This other Mr. Kim apparently observes visitors at the range. He sometimes ran out to fetch stray arrows and at other times stood by young visitors and helped them shoot “properly.”
At the moment, there was a group of children out from Seoul. They weren’t very good shots ― archery does take a lot of practice ― but they screamed hoorays each time the old man shot one of the bulls-eyes with a merciless bolt of hard rubber. It sounded like this: Thunk! “Yaaaaay!”
“This is so exciting,” said Lee Hyeon-min, age 8. “I’ve only seen arrows on television or in history books.”
The kids didn’t care too much about the mysterious prince. They seemed happy as long as they were shooting stuff.
Gunryang definitely appeals to children. The residents filled one paddy with water, which quickly froze over, and brought out sleds for the kids to paddle around on. The kids without sleds spun tops on the ice or played jang-chigi, a game that dates back to the Goryeo Dynasty and looks something like field hockey.
“We’ve been making these programs so children can learn more about history and have fun at the same time here,” said the older Kim, adding that he has volunteered to guide tourists since 2002. “It would have been better [for the children] if younger people come out to help, but they don’t seem to be interested. But I like being around children, so I don’t mind [volunteering].”
The highlight of the trip was the tractor ride. With about 10 kids sitting on top of each tractor, farmers (including the two Misters Kim) turned on the engine with a jolt. The kids yelped and the tractor rattled its way around the town.
“It was such a bumpy ride, my bottom really hurts,” said Jung Bo-mun, an 8-year-old visiting from Seoul. He added, though, that it was “really fun.”
Other ‘theme towns’ in Korea:
1. Naehyeon town, Hongseong county, North Chungcheong
Experience writing traditional poems and try food prepared for ancestral worship ceremony purposes.
2. Chusan town, Okryong county, South Jeolla
Try out wild green tea leaves and traditional bean paste.
3. Yeongok town, Jincheon county, North Jeolla
Try to catch (or just look at) fireflies and go on treasure hunts in the mountains.
4. Oksan town, Angang county, North Gyeongsang
Tour around the historical sites in Gyeongju and learn traditional manners.
5. Yodang town, Yanggam county, Gyeonggi
Spend a day in a forest of gingko trees.
For more information: http://www.go2vil.org/
To drive from Seoul, get onto the Yeongdong Highway at Hobeop and drive toward Gangneung until you find the exit for Icheon. Take a left toward Janghowon, then take a right after passing the head office of Hynix Semiconductor, and you’ll see a sign saying you’ve arrived in the town of Gunryang in Daewol county.
The history program is conducted on a block in town called Jachae Banga (Violet Mill) Village. There is a road sign to guide you from Gunryang to Jachae Banga.
by Lee Min-a
Note: Those who want a village volunteer, like either of the Misters Kim, must make reservations. The volunteers speak no English, but they say foreigners have been here before and managed to enjoy spending a day there.
Reservations can be made at: www.banga.go2vil.org, or by calling: (031) 634-4283.