A village blooms from the ashes of colonial rule
That member is Yi Seok, the nephew of King Sunjong, Korea’s last monarch. Mr. Yi was born in 1941, only four years before liberation and the confiscation of all royal assets by the Korean government. After that, Mr. Yi worked as a disk jockey and an entertainer in Seoul, then did odd jobs and owned a liquor store in Los Angeles before returning home. He was miserable, and at times contemplated suicide.
But in October 2004, Mr. Yi moved to the hanok (Korean-style house) village in Jeonju as the head of the Jeonju Lee family, boosting Jeonju's status as Korea’s self-proclaimed “royal city.” His home is next to a museum, and he occasionally welcomes guests to the city.
Mr. Yi is simply the most notable example of what makes Jeonju Hanok Village so unique: compared to the other museum collections of houses whose residents are long dead, the 800 traditional houses in Jeonju comprise a living community.
You may not meet Mr. Yi while you’re there. In fact, go now and you may not meet much of anyone; the streets are virtually deserted in the dead of winter. (The place is more popular in fall, when the ginseng trees turn yellow, and in spring.) But you’ll still have the chance to see one of the most unique pieces of urban geography in Korea, a historical mishmash of high and low, old and new, East and West, shaped for better and worse by the constructive and destructive forces of the Korean royal family and the Japanese invaders.
My friends and I began our tour just outside the hanok village at Pungnammun, the only remaining gate of what was once the old wall that circumvallated Jeonju. The gate dates back to the Goryeo Dynasty, and Jeonju dwellers liken it to Seoul’s Namdaemun. It may not be quite as impressive as that, but one can get close to it without having to cross seven lanes of traffic. The rest of the gates and the wall were destroyed by fire and by the Japanese. Jeonju holds its annual New Year's festival here, and the gate serves as a historical marker for the village’s tumultuous history.
Though it destroyed many priceless artifacts and buildings, without the Japanese occupation, Jeonju’s hanok village wouldn’t exist. During the occupation period almost a century ago, Japanese lower-class merchants started to build houses in the area outside the wall. When the wall was demolished, however, they moved into the city itself, and in response, Jeonju citizens founded a new community outside the wall’s ruins.
The neighborhood was built from the outset to preserve Korean architecture and Korea’s traditions, which were being dismantled under Japanese influence. It’s no surprise that Korean architecture students spend time studying the unique collision of cultures that took place here. Protected from the development of the city, the hanok village became a historical preservation zone in the 1950s and an official tourist attraction just a few years ago.
A short walk from Pungnammun is one of the most unique buildings in the zone: the Catholic Cheondong Cathedral, built at the turn of the 20th century by French priests on the site where several Catholic missionaries and converts were martyred. The oldest Western-style building in the city, it provides a poignant contrast to the traditional Korean structures right across the street.
It’s this collection of small structures that serves as a shrine for the portraits of Joseon Dynasty kings, but it’s also the headquarters of the Jeonju Lee family, which founded the Joseon Dynasty in the early 14th century. It predates the hanok village by several centuries, and buildings have been sitting on the site as long ago as the 15th century.
The shrine is now stocked with copies of family portraits (except for one, the originals were all destroyed by the Japanese), but some of their old palanquins are still on display. Also on the site is a reconstruction of an archive building where some of the Joseon Dynasty's royal archives were stored. This set of ancient archives was one of four scattered across Korea; it was also the only copy of the archives not destroyed by the Japanese.
Given Jeonju’s heritage as Joseon’s royal city, the Japanese did their best to dominate it. A school next door to the shrine used to be a Japanese police station, where loud military drills were said to have been held 24 hours a day to disturb the spirits of the dead kings. The main Japanese-built highway through Jeonju was positioned deliberately according to geomancy to disrupt the natural flow of energy in the city, a tactic also used in Seoul when positioning the old Japanese colonial administration building.
But, fortunately, much of the village was left untouched by the occupiers. Chanting still drifts from a Confucian school, three simple buildings that still offer training in the precepts of filial piety and social virtue.
Several hanok also provide the chance for visitors to experience unusual Korean traditions. Jeonju is famous for hanji, a Korean style of mulberry paper, and a visit to a small paper factory housed in a hanok offers visitors the chance to watch workers pull the paper from a tank of pulp water. We also found out it’s not as easy as it looks, since 3,000 won buys a shot at making your own. The paper is called paekji, which can mean “white paper” or “100 paper,” alluding to the 100 steps it supposedly takes to make, though I only counted three or four. The attached gift shop offers stationary of all colors and textures.
If scholarship is not your cup of tea, try some Korean liquor, soju: a visit to the Jeonju Traditional Liquor Museum might be more stimulating. Displays explain the surprisingly simple process of brewing and distilling Koreans’ favorite tipples. If you’re in town for a while you can attend classes and make your own. The shop offers free samples of some unusual poisons, including igangju, a spicy local specialty made from pears and ginger.
Spend too much time at the liquor museum and you may be due a visit to the Korean Traditional Medicine Center, run by Woo Suk University. The center is equpped with a strange mix of modern diagnostic equipment, such as electronic scales and sphygmomanometers, and devices from old Korea. For 1,000 won ($1), patrons can take a quick test in Korean or English to determine their “constitution” according to the teachings of Lee Jae-ma, a Korean scientist of the 19th century. My constitution was soyang, or “small positive,” and I learned, among other things, that my eyes are piercing, my genitals are weak, and I should eat lots of barley, pork and mug-beans. The attendant gave me a full report for future reference.
Visitors to the village can stay overnight in a number of hanok. We chose Dongnakgweon, a hanok with a small number of two-person rooms. It may look traditional, but some concessions to modernity have been made: Each room is equipped with an air conditioner in the ceiling, electric heated floors, a refrigerator and a brand new Samsung flat screen television. Powering up my laptop revealed the free wireless Internet service.
Of course, no trip to Jeonju is complete without partaking of its emblematic dish, bibimbap, and locals steered us toward the delicious Jongno Haegwan Bibimbap, overlooking the Lee family shrine. Bean sprout soup is another Jeonju delicacy, and you can sample it at Jeonju Waengi Kongnamul, a cafeteria with off-white walls covered with pictures of the various TV stars who’ve sampled their fare.
by Ben Applegate
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