A flower’s lure is put to novel use

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A flower’s lure is put to novel use


The lead character in Lee Cheong-jun’s famous novel “A Vagabond of Seonhak-dong” wasn’t the percussionist or his companion pansori (a style of vocal music) singer ― it was the apricot flowers, known as maehwa.
In the story, the two performers wander around town putting on shows, surrounded by the full bloom of the flowers. The film version of the novel, released a few years ago, put the flowers front and center, using them as symbols of happiness, warmth and homesickness. Lee was born in Gwangyang, South Jeolla province, and set his novel there. The town now repays the favor by holding its Maehwa Festival every year.
Maehwa are commonly referred to in English as “Japanese apricot flowers,” but the moniker doesn’t go down well with the flower’s fans in Korea. The flower is a popular source of imagery in both Korean literature and cinema. The renowned director Im Kwon-taek, for example, has decided to shoot a remake of the movie, filming in Gwangyang so he can make the most of the local scenery.
While the town is surely happy to host Mr. Im, it doesn’t rely on its cultural reputation to draw tourists: Instead, the town uses is lush spring scenery to pull in weary urbanites.
“Smell the first scent of spring in Korea,” one of the town’s tourist advertisements reads.
The drive from Seoul took five hours, but when the car came within view of the East China Sea, a signboard appeared, welcoming me to the “home of warm sunshine.”

Welcome to Gwangyang, indeed: Korean feng shui practitioners believe energy flows through the Korean Peninsula, down from Mount Paekdu in the north across the mountain ranges to settle down here, accounting for the town’s beautiful mountains, rivers and harbors.
I was standing on Country Road No. 861, which runs alongside the Seomjin River, which forms the border that separates the Jeolla from the Gyeongsang provinces. To my left was South Jeolla province and Maehwa Village, where the festival is held.
To my right was South Gyeongsang province and scores of riverside restaurants. Leftie at heart, I chose flowers over seafood.
With a week to go before the festival opened, the entrance to Maehwa Village was quiet and empty, and there were few blossoms to be seen.
“The breeze was quite strong a few days ago,” said Han Jeong-seon, a festival organizer for Gwangyang city. “It must have been the wind that blew the blossoms away, they’re very sensitive.”
But by the second week of March, he assured me, the wind would die down and the blossoms would cover the town. “It’s like a magic spell that happens every year.”

Maehwa Village was founded in the 1920s by a man named Kim O-cheon, who planted the apricot trees in the small town. (The village was originally called Seomjin, given its location.) Mr. Kim’s neighbors and descendents kept planting the trees, and the area eventually became known for its beautiful apricot gardens.
Along with the flowers, the town also is home to a 98-acre orchard of apricot trees. The orchard is owned by Hong Ssang-ri, 64, who has been growing apricots ever since she married a farmer here 30 years ago. She had lots of work to do: She needed to fill 2,500 clay pots with maesil jangajji, a thick paste made by mixing soy sauce with mulched vegetables and apricots.
“Maesil jangajji is considered best if it’s made right after the fruit is harvested and is still green, during early spring,” said Kim Su-hyeon, the owner of a cafe in the village.
The apricot tea Ms. Kim served was made with real, locally-grown apricots and tasted nothing like the “Maesil tea” Seoulites get out of vending machines.
Over the piles of clay pots, I could see hundreds of trees standing out on the horizon. Very few people were walking among them.
“Just wait until next week,” Ms. Kim said. She reminded me that there’s a good reason maehwa are symbols of fidelity and promises. “It’s the first flower to bloom every year. There will be blue, white and pink flowers all over the place.”

How to get to the village

By train, take a train headed to Hadong from Seoul Train Station. There is a train bound for Hadong once a day at 9:45 p.m. and arrives in Hadong at 3:17 in the morning. The fare is 23,900 won ($23). From Hadong station, go to Hadong Bus Terminal which is about a 30 minute walk from the train station. Take a bus to Cheongmaesil Farm, or the Green Apricot Farm.
By bus, take a bus headed to Hadong Bus Terminal from Seoul’s Nambu Bus Terminal in Seocho-dong. The bus bound for Hadong leaves six times a day. It takes about 5 hours to get to Hadong from Seoul. The fare is 23,000 won.
By car, get on the Gyeongbu Expressway, exit at Biryong Juncture, continue south on the Daejeong South Expressway and exit at Sannae Juncture. Get back on the Daejeon-Tongyeong Expressway until you reach the Jinju Juncture, get on the Namhae Expressway and exit at Hadong.
Detailed Information is available at 061-1330. Travel guides are available in Korean, English, Japanese and Chinese. For more information about Hadong’s Maehwa Festival, call (061) 797-2114. Help is provided in Korean and English.

by Lee Min-a
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