Jeonghee and I have been talking about heading over to the birthplace of the Joseon dynasty, Jeonju, for a weekend for awhile now, but we never seemed to have a couple of days free. Last weekend everything just clicked into place (free time + a brief respite in the rainy weather lately), so after waking up early Saturday morning we said what the hell and embarked on the four and a half hour bus journey.
After arriving we headed straight over to the Jeonju zoo, the first Korean zoo I’ve visited. The selection of animals was quite good, although the facilities themselves were a bit run-down and slightly depressing in the amount the larger animals had to roam in. It was a good visit, though, at least for us adults with juvenile sense of humor, as the animals got up to all kinds of unsavory business. There must have been something in the air. Besides randy monkeys and surprisingly, giddily perverted elephants and giraffes, the zoo’s policy of “it’s okay to feed the animals, as long as it’s fruit and vegetables” made for some good simian games of catch. Our favorite was the mandrill, who was just a chill dude compared to the rest of the monkeys.
After that we headed over to Jeonju’s CinemaCity area (there’s a well-regarded independent film festival here each April) for Jeonghee to poke around its many stores and to take in what’s a rather nice pedestrian shopping and eating area. We ate kimchi jigae (hot kimchi and pork soup) at a traditional restaurant and washed it down with makkeoli (sweet rice beer, essentially).
The next morning we headed over to Jeonju’s main attraction- its Hanok Village. Consisting of over 800 traditional-style Hanok buildings, its level of preservation is unique in Korea. We started off by visiting Pungnammun, a large fortified gate that is all that remains of the wall that used to circle Jeonju. Seoul and other cities also have similar gates that have withstood the test of time and make for interesting contrasts to the modernity that surrounds them.
After this we crossed the street to the Jeondong Catholic Church. There aren’t many churches in Korea with any age or architectural intrigue to them, but this one, built at the last turn of the century and boasting a wholly unique mixture of Romanesque, Byzantine, and Asian styles was well worth the visit (although it would have been nice if the interior had been preserved as well as the outside, instead of largely modernized).
Right next to the church is the Hanok Village itself, making a tour of Jeonju’s historically interesting sights a very convenient, easy walk. The hanok buildings were beautiful to look at, and while the fact that many have been converted into shops of all sorts kind of kills the illusion of stepping into another time, it was nonetheless impressive to be surrounded by them when in most parts of Korea you’re lucky to see two standing side by side.
Besides stores, there are also several interesting museums to check out. One of the most so is the Yeomyeong Photography Museum. Judging by the fact that there’s also a sizable record collection and pokemon toy collection of all things also inside, I assume this was a private collection at one point, but it is an extensive one, ranging from old daguerreotype cameras that are over a century old to ubiquitous 50s and 60s models like the one my own father told me had as a kid.
The museum also gave you a coffee or juice drink along with your ticket price, and proved a nice respite from the spitting rain that had showed up at that point. After chilling there for awhile, we went up the street to the Traditional Wine Museum, which was a bit of a disappointment. There were pictures and diagrams explaining the process of making various Korean wines and liquors, as well as a wide assortment of them on display, but unfortunately, unlike most other museums in the country, there weren’t even the barest, most ill-translated of English captions to try to make sense of. I thought about asking Jeonghee to translate each one, but thought better of it and went to the small shop near the entrance to buy a couple liquors to sample ourselves (which I’ll report on once I get the opportunity to do so).
The last thing we visited was the principal attraction- Gyeonggijeon, a large walled shrine that’s popped up in a lot of Korean period dramas, containing an underground museum with the portrait of King Tae-jo, one of the few surviving dynastic portraits. The buildings are beautifully preserved, although not terribly different from most other Korean shrines. Once you’ve visited a few of them, they begin to blur together a tad. The portraits themselves were quite interesting, whose deep colors are due to a process by which the ink is bled through the canvas from behind instead of painted on. There also were displays of royal clothing and palanquins that were also of great interest.
After this, and before boarding the long bus ride home, we headed to a restaurant boasting a wide variety of Jeonju side dishes we shared. Earlier, we had eaten the famed Jeonju bibimbap (fresh vegetables, rice, egg, and red pepper sauce mixed together), but that was at Kimbap Chunkuk, which is kinda like eating a “Texas Burger” at Burger King and calling it authentic. Good, though.
Anyway, the side dish restaurant was the real deal, and I got to try out an assortment of random Jeonju food, from the more mountainous area where it sits all the way to the coast of the department. The most interesting of the bunch were fermented clams (interesting flavor, but a bit strong for my taste), a delicious bulgogi (beef) stir fry, jellyfish in mustard sauce, an aerated sweet potato and bell pepper dish with the consistency of spit but a nice flavor, and the surprise winner- fermented stingray. The last came with cold pork and kimchi, and was supposed to be eaten with them as a kind of wrap, but we didn’t know that. Even by itself, though, it was intriguingly tasty, and meatier than I expected after eating stingray in Taiwan and feeling like I was chewing on a fish-flavored pig ear.
Well, I’ll end this novelette here. It was a good trip overall, and hopefully we’ll get a chance to do a little more domestic travel together at the end of July during summer break. I’ll be sure to report when I get around to trying those Korean liquors- ideally this weekend!