Recent Posts, Posted by Matt in ALL DESTINATIONS,Best of DK,Buddhist Temples,Food & Drink,Gyeongsang,Hotels & Resorts,Nature, 9 Comments
Much has been written about South Korea’s economic miracle. In just 60 years, a nation divided and devastated by war went from international aid recipient to join an elite club of aid donors. Of course, South Korea’s transformation is a testament to the aspirations of its hard working people. But amidst this wildly successful race towards prosperity, many Koreans are asking, “How can I enjoy the ride?”
In recent decades, governments in Canada to the Himalayan kingdom of Bhutan have sought ways to emphasize their citizens’ “Gross National Happiness” over “Gross National Product.” This desire to improve the quality of life is also taking hold in South Korea, where the term “well-being” began as shorthand for eating healthy and organic food. Today, it’s part of a wider trend that appreciates the conveniences of city life, while recognizing that the urban jungle also has its poisons.
To see this trend for myself, on a recent weekend a friend and I departed Seoul for a radical change of pace and place in South Gyeongsang Province’s Hadong County.
Korea’s Slow Cities
Located between Mt. Jirisan (지리산) and the Seomjingang River (섬진강) with the sea to the south, Hadong County is known for its beautiful scenery. In fact, the county has largely escaped the development that’s transformed much of rural Korea. In the past this may have been seen as bad luck, but today, Hadong is embracing its newly minted status as one of Korea’s six “slow cities.”
The Cittaslow movement began in 1999, when the ex-mayor of an Italian town was alarmed by the fast-paced, homogenized world. In response, he created the “slow city” movement to encourage regional and traditional cuisine, to celebrate unspoiled landscapes and to respect the rich cultural traditions that exist in the world’s small communities. Today, there are over 100 slow cities around the world, with Hadong and five other Korean towns becoming the first Asian Cittaslows.
One of Hadong County’s most charming towns is Hwagae Village (화개마을). The name means “a village where flowers bloom,” and each spring, a 5-kilometer stretch of riverside road erupts in cherry blossoms. Historically, Hwagae was known for its marketplace, where merchants and buyers from the three surrounding provinces gathered on every fifth day. Today, most Koreans are familiar with the name thanks to a hit song by Cho Young-nam (조영남).
When my friend and I arrived in Hwagae, we received our first taste of the slow city lifestyle at the town bakery. Although nobody was inside, three shelves of packaged goods were for sale. I picked up some cookies and called out for the shopkeeper. While I waited, I saw a handwritten note on the table. It said that she was next door at the beauty parlor. My friend and I went there, but it, too, was empty. The note had also listed her mobile phone number, so we called. As it turned out she wasn’t nearby. Instead, she simply told us to open the cash register and deposit our 1,200 won inside.
Green Tea County
When you live in a coffee-crazed city like Seoul, sometimes it’s easy to forget that Korea has a long tea tradition. The hardy shrubs grow best in Korea’s warmer, southern regions, and the best-known tea plantations are in South Jeolla Province’s Boseong, on Jeju Island, and in Hadong. Among them, Hadong’s tea has been cultivated the longest. According to historical records, in the 9th century, a Shilla king sent envoy Daeryeom to Tang Dynasty China to acquire tea seeds. When he returned, the seeds were planted on the slopes of Mt. Jirisan near Ssanggyesa Temple (쌍계사). The area’s fertile soil and foggy hillsides created the optimal growing conditions for tea, and to this day, thousands of seemingly feral shrubs cover the hillsides.
Of course, tea’s health benefits are well known, and a visit to Hadong’s Tea Cultural Museum (차문화전시관) will explain that the plant’s amino acids and vitamins relieve fatigue, lower cholesterol and even prevent tooth decay. But I found that the most interesting tea education takes place inside Hadong’s many teashops. Walls of ceramic ware and boxes of tea are what’s for sale, but on three separate occasions, my friend and I were invited to sit down for a few cups and conversation.
On Hwagae’s outskirts is Ssanggye Jeda (쌍계제다), a second-generation teashop run by Ms. Park Jeong-sook. Seated on log stools, Ms. Park described the best way to prepare and serve tea. As she talked, I noticed that she used clay cups with wood saucers. She explained that the sound made by the contact of ceramic cup and saucer was an unnecessary distraction from the enjoyment of drinking and talking.
As our conversation topic drifted from tea etiquette to village life, Ms. Park lamented that Hwagae’s traditional culture was changing. While the renovated roads and new facilities were intended to make life more convenient, some of the area’s traditional character was also disappearing. For the resident and visitor alike, it seemed like the main dilemma for places like Hadong – how to preserve the unique character of small towns while enjoying the conveniences made possible by modern daily life?
After a long day of exploring Hadong County’s many sights, my friend and I retired to Sooryu (수류), a cluster of traditional hanok guesthouses located above the Seomjingang River. Despite our last-minute inquiry, a forecasted storm had caused a few reservations to be cancelled. Although recently constructed, the carpenters were respectful of traditional building techniques and materials, and the result is several gorgeous structures set amongst clay and tile walls and tasteful landscaping. After joining the proprietor, Mr. Jeong Seong-yong, for tea, within a couple of hours we had both fallen asleep.
The next morning, despite the forecast we awoke to a high blue sky and thin bands of low clouds that lingered beside the foothills. After taking a short walk to enjoy the view, we packed our things and reluctantly prepared to leave. Approaching Hwagae for the last time, we stopped at the Mogyeon Tea House (목연찻집), but this time it wasn’t for the tea. After 36 hours of winding down in one of Korea’s slow cities, it was time to prepare to reintegrate into fast-paced Seoul. Scanning the menu, after 12 different kinds of tea we rejoiced at #13’s feistier option: coffee.
Sights Not to be Missed
Beyond sampling Hadong County’s fine teas and natural beauty, there are a number of popular tourist sites in the region that are worth checking out. Here are just a few of them:
Choi Champandaek (최참판댁)
Located next to the picturesque rice paddies of Agyang is a hillside village that recreates the setting of Gyeung Ri Park’s epic historical novel, Toji. The sprawling grounds feature many thatch and tile-roofed homes, several working farms, animals and vendors proffering traditional gifts.
Hwagae Market Spring Flowers Festival (화개장터 벚꽃축제)
Each spring, much of Korea’s southern provinces is covered in spring flowers, most notably the yellow gaenari or forsythia, and the pale pink blossoms of cherry trees. The roads that line either side of the Seomjingang River are a favorite place to see the flowers and the kilometers leading up to Hwagae Market are some of the best.
Hwagae Market (화개장터)
Located in the center of Hwagae Village is a famous market that’s long been a place of commerce for three provinces (and the topic of a popular song). Better known as “Hwagae Jang-to,” it’s also a great place to purchase beautiful ceramic ware, bags of medicinal roots or to sample a local specialty – soup made from freshwater marsh clams.
Located about one hour from Hwagae Village high up on Mt. Jirisan is Samseonggung. The sanctuary was erected in 1983 in honor of the Emperor of Heaven (Hwan-in), his son Hwanung, and his grandson (and the mythical founder of Korea), Danggun. The cultural-nationalist compound includes hundreds of stone pagodas.
Ssanggyesa Temple (쌍계사)
On the southern slopes of Mt. Jirisan is Ssanggyesa Temple. Founded in 723 during the Shilla Dynasty, most of it was destroyed during the Japanese invasions of the late 16th century and reconstructed in 1975. The temple complex contains several cultural assets, including one national treasure: a 3.6-meter tall stele built in the 9th century to celebrate the life of the famous Buddhist monk, Hyeso..
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