Village of buckwheat flowers balances its past and present

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Village of buckwheat flowers balances its past and present

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In the small village of Bongpyeong, in Pyeongchang district, situated near central Gangwon province, residents have one particular person whom they all relish boasting about ― Lee Hyo-seok (1907 - 1942), the novelist who penned the much-loved short story, “When Buckwheat Flowers are in Bloom.”
The tale, published in 1936, is considered the pinnacle of the modern Korean short story format, especially with its intuitive descriptions of nature, which acts as a reflection of the main character, Huh Saeng-won’s, inner dialogue. Born in Bongpyeong, Lee put the vast buckwheat fields of his hometown at the center of his story, with the main character, an anti-social figure with a nomadic soul, walking through the buckwheat fields at night tracking the void of his mixed emotions as he notices the road surrounding him: “The mountainside is covered with buckwheat flowers just starting to bloom, looking like sprinkled salt under the creamy moonlight, taking my breath away.”
The buckwheat fields serve not only as the story’s central imagery but also as the iconic symbol of this town. Around 500,000 square meters of buckwheat fields spread over Bongpyeong. Buckwheat has played a large role in the town’s commerce as well, as buckwheat powder is a favorite ingredient in Korean noodles, pancakes, dumplings, jelly and even rice wine.
At the beginning of September, buckwheat buds begin to take their first peek at the world and by mid-September, the fields have turned into a gigantic quilt filled with tufts of white flowers resembling snowflakes.
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If you visit Bongpyeong immersed in the rural romance and serenity of the poetic short story, however, you are setting yourself up for disappointment as the area is much more commercial than one would expect. This year marks the 8th year of the Hyoseok Cultural Festival, organized by the Hyoseok Cultural Festival Organization and sponsored by the regional government as well as the Ministry of Culture, and which draws more and more people every year. Around 570,000 tourists visited last year’s festivities and this year, an estimated 700,000 tourists came and went. Along with this growing interest, the village has been trying to meet demand by setting up more and more stands in the market in front of the main buckwheat field and holding events such as outdoor screenings of the movie version of Lee’s short story, karaoke concerts and tours of the Lee Hyoseok Memorial Hall and the author’s home.
In the main tourist area in which the largest buckwheat field, the memorial, the author’s home, buckwheat specialty restaurants and shops are clustered, the scene is anything but serene and rustic.
As I walked through the market on my way to the main field mid-morning, vendors selling steamed corn, chestnuts and ginkgo nuts shouted out “Miss, do us a favor and just buy our snacks!” With a certain unease, I kept walking to discover stands filled with items such as fake gold jewelry, leather bags and pajamas alongside the regional produce of potatoes, buckwheat flour, tomatoes and corn.
The noisy stretch eventually led to the main buckwheat field that by 2 p.m. was filled with tourists waving away the bees and taking pictures. Throughout the field were pathways for tourists to walk through but these weren’t enough to prevent a lot of the buckwheat flowers, knee high when standing, being stepped on. A couple of hours later, the crowd seemed to disappear one by one into the buckwheat restaurants and stands that sold everything from buckwheat cold noodles and pancakes to buckwheat wine and dumplings.
I entered one of these restaurants, “Hyundae Makguksoo,” which had been recommended by a few locals, and ordered the noodles, pancakes, wine and dumplings. Compared to the buckwheat noodles I’ve tasted in Seoul, these were much rougher and contained a strong aroma of buckwheat ― a bit nutty and breadlike. The owner, Choi Ah-suk, claims that the noodles are made of 80 percent buckwheat. “My grandmother first started this restaurant. We used to grind the buckwheat ourselves every morning but now we take it to a rice mill because it is just too much work, with all the tourists coming in,” said Ms. Choi. Traditionally, buckwheat is ground in a Korean stone mill and made into a paste by mixing in flour to be made into noodles, one of the favorite forms of buckwheat food. Another favorite buckwheat dish is buckwheat jelly, in which buckwheat flour is mixed with water and gelatin and usually served with a soy-based sauce or in a cold soup.
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The field is right next to the Lee Hyoseok Memorial Hall, which includes the author’s manuscripts and letters as well as handwritten pieces from fellow authors of his generation. There is also a large timeline detailing Lee’s personal life and professional career. Here and there, poignant anecdotes of the author’s life are posted up on the walls. One reads, “Lee Hyoseok was lean and always wore slick, westernized outfits. Even during times when he was not financially well-off, the author always insisted on dressing in elegant attire.”
Near the hall is the author’s home, which was renovated over the years as its owners changed. The watermill, where the main character of “When Buckwheat Flowers are in Bloom” made love, has also been rebuilt for tourists to enjoy, along with grinding stations under roofs of hay. However, the site is far from authentic as buckwheat restaurants sit less than 5 meters from the spot, luring tourists to their tables.
The best time to enjoy the sights around Bongpyeong, (especially during festival month) seemed to be in the morning before 9 o’clock, when the fields are quiet except for the sound of the crisp wind. The struggle of the village to find a comfortable balance between its past and present can be felt throughout its streets, fields and shops. “Bongpyeong is expanding in scale and getting more and more attention because of the success of the festival. We are trying to preserve the authenticity of the town,” said an official at the village office.


Other attractions

There are other cultural attractions in this area besides these main points of interest, such as the “Bongsan Seojae,” a shrine which includes portraits of Yulgok Lee Yi and Hwaseo Lee Hang-ro, scholars during the Joseon dynasty, “Panwandae,” the site, according to legend, where Lee Yi was conceived, and “Palseokjeong,” a pavilion frequented by Yang Sa-eon, a magistrate in Gangwon province, in which he wrote poems and enjoyed the nature views.
Situated nearby is “Herbland Farm,” which includes more than 100 different kinds of herbs and has attractions such as a “Children’s Garden,” “Garden of Scent,” “Moonlight Garden,” and “Butterfly Garden,” for visitors to roam in and in which to experience the herbs for themselves.
In the Mui Art Museum, there are various events, such as pottery classes, buckwheat drawing classes and sculpture classes and exhibitions.


by Cho Jae-eun

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