Ever since I read the historical fiction, A Single Shard by Linda Sue Park, I’ve been fascinated by Goryo era celadon. The book is about a poor orphan boy who dreams of becoming a potter and gets apprenticed by a local master. It is connected to the mystery of the 1000 crane vase, which is a Korean national treasure, but I won’t spoil it in case you want to read it.
Koryo Celadon, is a type of pottery glazed in jade green and famous in the region since the 10th century. What makes it special, besides being beautiful, is that it was revered in the region as superior and way ahead of its time in both technique and beauty. How much of that is true, you’d have to ask an expert on the field. I further read up on it when I noticed that Korea’s first bid for a UNESCO World Heritage Site were the “Kangjingun Kiln Sites (1994).” However, much like the dinosaur sites in the previous post, this bid failed and the entire complex looks like it never took off. It is fascinating both because of what is still there and what is left decaying as time takes its toll.
Gangjin Celadon Village
Gangjin Celadon Village is an area in Gangjin (or Kangjin) which was designed to be a theme park of sorts to promote Koryo celadon. The central jewel was the museum with some of the best preserved pieces of celadon. Adjacent to it are two real kilns which were discovered nearby and transported here for tourists to see how the burning klins actually looked. Surrounding the museum are walking paths lined with pottery, monuments of celadon, buildings with celadon roof tiles, and even a workshop where children can make their own celadon. Across the street are a few celadon shops and behind them are workshops that are still active. One workshop in particular caught my eye as it was run by a local youth organization determined to keep the tradition from dying. This kind of work is usually shunned by youngsters.
The complex was designed to have a few camping car parks for big RVs. I’ve never seen those driving around in Korea, but have seen them parked and for rent, so my guess is that once upon a time, they were there for rent. Across the car parks is a large pool laced of, you guessed it, celadon. Last but not least is a Minhwa Museum, a type of folk art, that is definitely worth a visit.
Today, the car park is empty and the celadon pool looks like it hasn’t been filled for years. Even the walking paths are neglected and only the ones in front of the museum seem to get any maintenance at all. The kilns are closed and one of the signs which explains the kiln site was in the back and had fallen over. When I asked a museum attendant if it was possible to go inside, he seemed confused and asked another lady who gladly opened the door for me. The site was retrofitted with a 3D viewing camera which can reconstruct the kiln, but that too seems like it hadn’t been turned on in years.
The entire complex was a mix of wonder and sadness of what could have been. The museums are both worthwhile as are the workshops but the shops sell the same stuff that is sold in Seoul for pretty much the same price. In fact, one of the workshop was preparing a huge shipment for a shop in Seoul as I walked in. Nevertheless, if you like celadon AND abandoned places, this is kind of a little bit of both. The only guests I saw the entire time were local old people going for a stroll and a gyopo (overseas Korean) who seemed to be as enthusiastic about celadon as I was.
Honorable Mention 1 – Unjusa
After swinging by central Ganjin city, I decided to take the advice of the hostel owner I met in Busan and visited her favorite temple, Unjusa. Ever since visiting Haeinsa in 2012, it has been my favorite temple in Korea bar none. I’ve seen other UNESCO WHS temples like Magoksa and Bulguksa, but Haeinsa was just the Jewel temple for me. That is, until I visited this magnificent gem.
The first thing that sticks out is how different it is from other Korean temples. The entrance is just amazing with a bunch of towering pagodas. The rest of the temple is pretty too, but the weird looking circular pagodas and the outside Buddha embedded into a stone shrine really did it for me. It is a shame that the rain made it difficult to take better pictures, but still, it was quite something.
Honorable Mention 2 – Gamek 1988 (Jeonju)
I’ve been to Jeonju more times than I can remember at this point. Between JIFF (Jeonju International Film Festival) and the famous hanok village, it is always worth a swing at least once a year. One thing not a lot of non-Jeonjuans seem to know, though, is that Ga-mek (가맥) comes from here too. Gamek is short for Gage Mekju, which means “store + beer” and is a type of pub indigenous to this city. Lots of Korean style pubs in Korea sell beer and “side dishes” called “anju.” However, Gamek takes this a big further by adding pretty much any snack you would find in a convenience store from chips to cookies to ramen and so on. Some of these establishments blur the lines between being mostly a pub or mostly a convenience store. Some Koreans I’ve talked to seem a bit unimpressed, taking gamek to be nothing more than a glorified convenience store of a pub with options found practically anywhere. Nevertheless, it is a point of pride for Jeonju. For the last 5 years or so, they have hosted an annual gamek festival in the city.
Gamek 1988, sitting just a block away from the Hanok Village is one of the more popular gameks in town. It is pretty much the only one with a huge line if you walk by around 11pm. It is really nothing fancy, but a nice way to relax, and have a few beers with the locals.