Tuesday, August 16, 2011
Summer Vacation Part 2: Jeonju
This one's going to be a bit shorter as we didn't do anywhere near as much running around in Jeonju as we did in Buyeo.
For the most part, we really only had the one destination: The Jeonju Hanok Village. Jeonju is the capital city of North Jeolla Province and it's mostly famous for its bibimbap. As a side note, it appears that virtually every Korean city needs to be "famous" for some kind of food, even though most varieties of cuisine are served all across the peninsula. You'll see bibimbap restaurants in Seoul advertising that they serve "Jeonju Bibimbap" on the premises. But the Jeonju people might be able to tell the difference, like true Quebecois could tell you the difference between real maple syrup and Aunt Jemima.
Anyway, back to Jeonju. The city is significantly smaller than Suwon (Jeonju's population is just under 650,000 while Suwon's is just over a million) and it expectedly has a much slower feel than Seoul. For the tourist with a couple of evenings to kill, Jeonju is a great little discovery, and like I said - most cultural points of interest are centered around the Hanok Village.
So, what is the Hanok Village? Well, it's a touristy spot in the south of the town which begins right beside the city's only surviving gate and extends toward a smallish mountain in the East of the city. The best way to describe the place would be to relate how it began, as related to me by the rabbit. Apparently during the early 20th century occupation by the Japanese, the Jeonju citizens decided to band together and create a place that would celebrate, cultivate, and maintain the Jeonju flavour of Korean culture in the face of oppression.
What exists now is about 700 some-odd hanok-style houses (not all of them original buildings) that serve as cafes, guest houses, and galleries. For Seoulites, think of it as a larger Samcheong-dong/Insadong cross. It's all very maintained, and manicured for the tourist dollar, but I'm not complaining as I knew at least in part that it was what we were getting into. That being said, there is also enough authenticity lurking behind certain doors, and down certain alleyways, if one cares enough to look for it. There is, in the Hanok Village, only one Paris Baguette, and one Family Mart, and we are hopeful it stays that way.
The Hanok Village makes a perfect destination for first-time visitors to the city, and you can see and do most of what you would want to in two or three days. It was easy to spend a couple of afternoons and evenings wandering the cafes, checking out the galleries, and enjoying a couple of bowls of authentic Jeonju bibimbap - one of which was consumed at Jeonju's most famous and ridiculously busy bibimbap restaurant, which the rabbit was good enough to locate through bibimbap sonar - a bit North of the Hanok Village toward Jeonju's own "Myeong-dong" style area of shops, which the map labels as "Street that is Desired to Walk".
We also made a point of enjoying a paper-crafting class. Jeonju is also famous for it's fans constructed from handmade paper ("hanji"). We missed booking a time with an actual paper-making studio, which would have been messy fun, but we did manage to slip down an alley to Ji-dam, a hanji crafting house, where we were able to craft-up some small gifts for folks back home.
It's hard to compare Jeonju to Buyeo, other than to say that we were in both places for vastly different reasons and conducted ourselves as such. If you're looking for a relaxing weekend away - somewhere outside of Seoul that offers some slower-paced strolling, eating, and crafting, you could do a lot worse than Jeonju. In fact, we are considering another trip back in the fall when we won't need to put those Korean fans through such a workout.
As for accomodations, we considered staying in a Hanok guesthouse, but it was high season and staying in one would have cost us a fair bit, so we opted for a nearby jimjil-bang which I will comment on later. For now, I will say that the Spa L Aqua (which shares a name with one of the more high class onsen in Tokyo) was a great bang for the buck. It was like a spa wonderland, but later...
And before I forget, on our way from Buyeo to Jeonju, we stopped-over at Nonsan - a bus transfer town within a short taxi ride from Gwonchok-sa - a smallish mountain temple that is relatively unremarkable save for its giant-headed statue of the Unjin Mireuk Buddha - the Buddha of the future of the Goryeo Dynasty. It happens to be Korea's largest free-standing stone Buddha and it's carved from one solid piece of rock. It also happens to be fairly entertaining to look at. Just try not to smile when you gaze upon his gargantuan melon.