Culture and ecology combine in the often overlooked Gokseong County
Gokseong County in South Jeolla is one of the lesser-known parts of Korea, even among locals.
Although there are plenty of mountains, they are overshadowed by the country’s second tallest peak at nearby Mount Jiri. There is a 212 kilometer (131 mile) long river called Seomjin River that flows right through Gokseong, but the county is located upstream so it doesn’t offer a particularly eye-catching scenery.
But this apparently uninteresting rural county about a three-and-a-half hour drive away from the capital has become a treasured second home to veteran author Kim Tak-hwan and scientist-turned-farmer Lee Dong-hyun.
The two became acquainted in March 2018 when Kim was on his way back to Seoul from taking a small vacation in Mount Jiri after finishing his novel.
Kim, 54, is an author and literary critic of dozens of novels, short stories and essays. His first novel is “The Love Story of Twelve Whales,” was published in 1996.
On his way back from the vacation, his friend who lives in South Jeolla made a reservation for the two of them at a place called “Fall in Love Rice Cafe” (translated). Kim recalled the meal that he ate there that day as “life-changing.”
He had the restaurant’s signature vegan set menu which is 15,000 won or $12 per person. The meal is comprised of side dishes such as nurungji (crust of overcooked rice) salad, steamed tofu, tteokbokki (rice cakes) seasoned with soy sauce and soup made with black rice.
Customers often order an additional main dish of sweet and sour taro and Shiitake mushrooms for 20,000 won.
Most impressive of all was the freshly cooked rice made with sprouted brown rice.
All the dishes and ingredients are local, organic and vegan.
Kim had recently made the transition to veganism and was captivated by such a wholesome and delicious meal.
Fall in Love Rice Cafe is operated by a local agricultural corporation Misillan, and Lee Dong-hyun is the CEO.
Lee, 53 is a Ph.D. graduate of microbial sciences from Kyushu University in Fukuoka, Japan. Three years after receiving his doctorate degree, in 2006, he became a farmer and established Misillan at a site that used to be a local elementary school. Misillan specializes in the germination of brown rice and sells organic sprouted brown rice researched and developed by Lee and his team.
“[Lee and I] would have met someday, one way or the other, but it is certain that the meal was a turning point,” said Kim.
After tasting the food at Misillan’s restaurant, Kim frequently visited the farming corporation and published a book about his experiences in Gokseong in August 2020. “Beauty is to be Protected” discusses the themes of extinction and humanity that Lee felt during his stay in Gokseong.
The following year, Kim got his own place in Gokseong and currently stays there five days a week. When he's in the county, he goes to Misillan every morning and writes on the second floor of the company. He goes out to farm with Lee in the afternoons.
After over a year of this new rural lifestyle, Kim last month published a collection of prose titled “Kim Tak-hwan’s Diary of Seomjin River.” It contains his learnings and experiences as an amateur farmer throughout the spring, summer, fall and winter seasons.
In December last year, Kim opened a bookstore called “Ecology Bookstore, the Field’s Heart” (translated) at Misillan. The store holds some 500 books about ecology, and Kim has personally written an introduction for about 300 of them.
Staying true to Misillan’s purpose, which is to sell rice, the bookstore also sells tiny sample packets of just 1 gram of the raw grain.
The store also holds “story-telling lessons and teaches the county locals writing,” said Kim. “Lee Dong-hyun and I are working together to create a community that combines culture and ecology.”
Last month, Misillan held its 26th mini music concert.
In between farming and writing, Kim takes strolls around Gokseong. He said that whenever he gets tired of farming or something doesn’t work out in his writings, he goes on nature walks.
The road that he most often takes, because it is on his way to work from his house, is lined by metasequoia, or dawn redwoods.
Another one of his favorites is the walk around the Jangseon wetlands. Because it is only about a 10-minute walk from Misillan, Kim often takes the dog that lives in Misillan, named Boksili, as company or goes with a group of visitors at Misillan.
The furthest trail from Misillan is called the Forest Menggil. It is on the way to Taean Temple, which is a historical temple at the foot of Mount Dongni in Gokseong County.
From Misillan, it takes about 20 minutes by car then another 1.5-kilometer walk up the forested valley.
Lee recalled climbing up the valley with Kim and the two falling asleep while listening to the sound of water as they read.
But Lee’s most treasured trail is at Chimsil wetland. Chimsil wetland is the country’s 22nd state-protected wetland as of 2016. It is home to some 665 species of wild animals including endangered species such as otters, freshwater tortoises, buzzards and wildcats.
In Gokseong, people blend in with nature by preserving it like this.
Even with people staring out into the river while laying down on a bridge free of cars, the scene is as natural as Gokseong’s mountains and rivers.
BY SON MIN-HO [email@example.com]