Saturday, May 4
We stayed at the famous King Motel (with a 7-11 on the first floor, which was mega-convenient), then went to Mungyeong Sejae for the Chasabal (or tea bowl) Festival.
Well of course, the tea bowl festival has its own mascot. Doesn’t every event in Korea have a cutsey-wootsey mascot? This one was a tea bowl-headed guy (and girl, as we soon found out). They were walking around together and I got my photo taken with them.
There were also beautifully-clothed men and women in traditional clothing. Steve got some photos of women in kisaeng (traditional entertainer) outfits looking fabulous with hats that resemble oversized lampshades.
There were vendors for many local products, including omija wine and juice, tablets and extracts, mushrooms, onion juice (?), sole ip or pine needle powder, black garlic (hok manul jib) and a special dandelion green tea native to the area.
There is also a monument to a hero I have not heard of, Shin Gil Won, Hyun Gahm, who taught the common people and also led the farmers against the Japanese invaders in 1592.
The Arirang Museum or Museum of Old Roads
In the Mungyeong Sejae area, there is a museum set back from the road with a garden out front. It took a few minutes for us to make out what it was, and even after we paid our admission fee to get in, we were not sure what kind of museum we were going to. The museum was built around the rather complex idea of Arirang, a song about traveling, and Mungyeong as a place many travelers came through. It is the founding idea of this museum that the original place of Arirang, a song which exists in different forms everywhere in Korea, is Mungyeong.
Because of the mountains, there were very few routes to Seoul in the old days (probably the same is true to some extent today). Because of the physical limitations of the landscape, there were few choices of people going from south to north. This happened a lot when scholars had to travel to Seoul (or Hanyang in olden days) to take scholastic exams, which would move them up in the meritocracy system of Korea. They favored the Mungyeong route for superstitious reasons. “Munhi” one of the exhibits explained, means “happy news,” where the Jukryeong road is reminiscent of the word that means “slide off or fall off.” The Chupoongryeong road, similarly, has an association with autumn leaves, which also “fall off” at the end of the season. The “happy news” road therefore, was the route of choice for scholars who ascribed to certain etymological superstitions.
Beyond this long-winded explanation for the museum’s existence, there were a lot of fun versions of Arirang preserved in audio and audio-visual formats, some professionally sung, some individualistic versions by community members, and some just very sweet and dear, like the motley group of Jindo elders joining in a rousing version of Jindo Arirang, with various soloists taking the floor with practiced ease.
The idea of “the road” or “the journey” is explained as an element of Korean life, in an exhibit that explains the ideas of “earth,” “mountain,” “water,” and “road,” which all resonate after one has been on country roads in Korea for awhile. Indeed, there seems to be nothing else sometimes, as the bus winds on through villages, through mountain passes, over rivers, negotiating the non-judging and non-forgiving earth in the effort to conquer the physical challenge that is characteristic of travel in Korea.
There were a lot of traditional crafts and traditional games available to try for free. In one area, people whacked dough for traditional rice cakes (ddok). It’s very solid, and isn’t kneaded like bread dough. It’s folded and then pounded with a big mallet. (I happen to know there are electric ddok makers these days, where you put sticky rice in one end and get ddok out the other. But food prep has come a long way since then. Homemade ddok used to be even more of a labor of love than it is today).
In other areas, there were traditional drums to try. Steve and I played with a beat-up buk, janggo, and gwengarri and drew a crowd of about five people. It’s fun to be able to play something for people at a thing like that.
We eventually ended up with around $100 of inexpensive chasabal (the expensive ones sell for hundreds of dollars) which we are now trying to keep in one piece in soft-sided luggage. They were impossible to resist… so pretty and simple and original.
Living with a presumption of honesty
We just can’t live with the assumption that others are going to be honest toward us but in Korea, it seems that people do. In general, one sees little children out by themselves at night, even in Seoul, and there is a placid acceptance of whatever shopkeepers do. Nobody ever counts their change, or in any way implies they may need to doublecheck the honesty of others. I love this. A case in point was our incident at the Chasabal Festival, when we identified a couple of bargain bowls in one stall, only to discover that the shopkeeper was not in the shop, and apparently not even in the vicinity. Pretty soon, a few other customers were standing around with their bowls, waiting patiently, at a loss at what to do.
The phone number of the shopkeeper must have been posted on something, maybe a business card, because one of the customers got off the phone and started finding the bubble wrap and newspaper, and wrapping up their stuff in preparation for carrying them off. I was a little alarmed, but continued to wait, and pretty soon, the shopkeeper/artist returned, a tall, skinny, longhaired dude who spoke some English and apologized to me that he was at lunch! He had evidently told the couple over the phone to please wrap up their stuff, and he would be right back. He proceeded to calmly check out the couple who were before me, trusting that what they wrapped up was exactly what they wrote down on a piece of paper they handed him, despite the fact that there were bowls in the shop priced at hundreds of dollars!
My conclusion from this and other observations — petty crime is simply not a thing people think will happen. It must happen sometimes, but it is infrequent enough that people trust others in a way we just cannot do in the U.S. Is it increased honesty due to peer pressure, a more homogenous society, or something intrinsically Korean. I am awed sometimes by the Korean mindset. A little dose of that in our society would improve it a lot.
The Minnesota Connection in Mungyeong
At lunch in a somewhat raucous outdoor restaurant inside the village, we saw two Caucasian women eating together. We had ordered makkoli, a slightly alcoholic rice wine, for 7,000 won, and we got an entire teapot-full, enough for six people. Not wanting to be weaving around the festival grounds with our $100 worth of tea bowls, we offered the rest of the pot to the two women, who accepted tentatively. It turns out, they were both old hands at the Chasabal Festival. One was an artist from New Zealand (Elena Renker) , and the other, an artist from Boston (Stephanie Young). Stephanie, who has abundant long blond hair and blue eyes, told me she thought she was the most-photographed artist at the festival, although they all were receiving plenty of attention, since they were such a small group. Both had displayed at the festival for multiple years, and Elena had turned into a real Korea fan, coming early or staying late some years to travel around.
The two told us there were a few more artists from the U.S., including two from Minnesota. We followed them back to their artist shop and hung out with the artists for awhile. Two were from Denmark (one of those a British transplant to Denmark), and one was from North Carolina. Lee Love from Minneapolis immediately told us he is a KQ reader and fan. His mom is Japanese, he said, and his dad is a Korean War vet, and he feels an affinity with KQ and many of its contributors and subjects. Finding a KQ reader and fellow Minnesotan was pretty fun. We also met Craig Edwards from New London, Minnesota.
Everyone assumed we knew a lot about ceramics, since everyone there knows a lot about ceramics. We had to say several times that no, we were completely ignorant about the subject, but that we were having a good time looking at all of the stuff. People seemed to question us, like “why are you at a ceramics festival all the way from the U.S. if you don’t know anything about it?” but once we explained about the newspaper and the Korean connection, people seemed a little easier. At least there was some logical reason for us to show up there!
The foreign guests were just about to have their own performance of traditional arts at a little courtyard located on the top of the mountain, and they invited us to join them. They served us tea in a traditional pavilion, and then some rice wine, as we watched traditional singing and dancing performances – beautifully done, which ended with everyone dancing in a circle.
Being artists, they were all very good sports about joining in and dancing goofily, and singing “Arirang.” In that setting, with mountains all around, the songs and dances being performed in the place they came from, was all pretty magical, and a great ending to the day at the festival.