Tuesday, September 25, 2012

The Korean Folk Village in Suwon: It's About Time

Guardian deities at the village entrance.  Yes, I must have one to take back with me to the US.

Since MsCaroline works on her own quirky timetable, it will come as no surprise to anyone that she, as a foreigner, has lived in Seoul for over a year without visiting the Korean Folk Village in Suwon. Turns out it's an extremely popular attraction for tourists and people new to Seoul, and actually is one of the first tour-type things that many people do.  Naturally, it took MsCaroline 14 months to get herself there, but in her defense, there were a lot of typhoons in August.

Eventually, though, "Korean Folk Village' worked its way to the top of my list, and my friend L and I made arrangements to go on one of my days off from work.  I don't know if it it was just this particular Tuesday, but the crowd was extremely light (at least by Seoul standards) and L and I found ourselves pretty much on our own with the exception of a number of school field trips and a largeish tour group of International Women In Engineering (or something along those lines.)  The point is, it was delightful.

School groups left their backpacks and mats in neat little circles in the entrance courtyard. Naturally, there was no concern about anything being taken or damaged : another thing I love about Korea- honesty.

In fact, I wish I'd gone much sooner, because if I had, I would have already been back several times to enjoy it again - yes, it was that nice.

 As you enter the village, you find a huge rock pile covered in what looks like ropes covered with tiny ribbons.

Our guide explained that villagers traditionally wrote wishes for health/happiness/luck on small pieces of a tough cloth-like paper and then tied them to the ropes covering these rocks.  The village had provided pieces of this paper and pens, and L and I added our wishes to the hundreds (thousands?) that were already there:

The Folk Village was established in the 1970s as Korea began to emerge as a growing economic force in Asia and began a period of rapid development.  Due to the devastation of the Korean war, very few historic or traditional buildings were still standing, and there was a desire to preserve Korean traditional and cultural history and lifestyles even as Korea barreled forward into the technological age.

This pagoda was built up on a hill to take advantage of the shade and the breezes.

  The Folk Village is really more of a living history museum (a la Colonial Williamsburg,) complete with authentic traditional buildings, a working rice paddy, herb gardens, and a certain amount of domestic livestock.

The cow in question seemed perfectly placid, but we avoided surprising her, just in case.  

 Traditionally-dressed 'residents' of the village can be seen going about their daily business, from weaving to harvesting herbs to sweeping the courtyards.  It has been built with painstaking attention to detail, and many traditional Korean TV dramas set in the past are filmed there.  From what I understand, filming frequently takes place even when visitors are in the village, and there's always a chance you'll get to see a scene being shot (we did not.)

On the walls at the entrance to the village are numerous banners advertising a number of the dramas that are filmed there.  Since I don't speak Korean, I don't watch the dramas, but I had to ask our guide about this one, featuring characters in traditional dress surrounding a single man dressed in modern clothing:

She explained that this show was about a man who traveled through time and space to different places and different eras.  His name?  Dr. Jin.   Remind you of anyone? I didn't see a Tardis(or the Korean equivalent thereof), and it was unclear whether or not Dr. Jin traveled anywhere in space and time besides the Korean folk village, but I took a photo for Son#2 anyway, who is a huge fan of Dr. Who.

Anyway - back to the village.

The village has examples of many types of authentic Korean buildings and dwellings, from humble peasants' houses to a typical governor's residence - and just about everything in between.

 The only way the village diverts from scrupulous authenticity is the fact that typical dwellings from all parts of Korea are represented, which means that you will find a typical northern-style dwelling just down the road from the type of home typically seen on the semitropical southern island of Jeju:
Typical dwelling from Jeju island:  the roof is lashed down to withstand prevailing ocean winds and storms, and the exterior features local volcanic rock.

This geographical inaccuracy notwithstanding, the overall effect (at least to my untrained Western eyes) is wonderful.

The houses were furnished and decorated in the way that they would have been hundreds of years ago,  such as this house, whose string of red chili peppers tells the neighbors that a baby boy has been born ( no peppers if you had a girl):

One of my favorite sections of the village was the expansive herb garden and nearby apothecary and healer's buildings, where you could find herbs, teas, and - of course - ginseng for sale:

  Herbs were gathered, dried, and hung outside of buildings:

Once dried, herbs were sorted, labeled, and hung in bags from the ceiling rafters,

Or labeled for sale in bins:

In addition to the actual buildings, the village also features a marketplace and gift shop where visitors can buy jewelry, ceramics, wood carvings, and other typical Korean souvenirs, most of which are actually available for purchase  - at a significantly cheaper price - in many of the markets in and around Seoul, but this isn't any different from virtually every tourist attraction in any country I've ever visited .  There is also a sort of outdoor food court where guests can order from a menu of traditional Korean meals ( a bit pricey as you'd expect at a place like this.) I ordered bipimbap ( rice/meat/vegetable dish served in a hot bowl) -usually a favorite of mine - and it was OK, but nothing to write home about.  L had the foresight to pack a lunch and probably enjoyed it much more than I'd enjoyed mine.  The marketplace and the food court - while providing a little taste of traditional Korean food and handicrafts - are probably best enjoyed by tourists spending a short time in Korea.  If you are a resident, you will have doubtless already experienced most of them - and at much cheaper prices.

Part of the admission fee to the folk village includes traditional Korean music, dance, and acrobatic performances:

Audience participation is encouraged:

Visitors also have the option of viewing a traditional Korean wedding ceremony.  Since the actual spoken part of the ceremony is in traditional Chinese (used for formal and/or official occasions for many years even after King Sejong developed the Hangul alphabet,) the wedding ceremony was read in Chinese, then translated into Korean - but not English.  This didn't seem to matter much, since the costumes and 'props' were so visually interesting:  the brightly colored robes of the bride, groom,and their attendants, as well as the various items used in the ceremony.  Part of the traditional ceremony also included the bride and groom doing shots drinking a serving of liquor out of small cups.  Given the fact that the bride and groom did not actually meet until the wedding ceremony, inserting a social lubricant directly into the proceedings seemed like a practical step to me.  Unfortunately, due to the crowded venue and the presence of an Annoying Professional Photographer who positioned himself smack in the middle of every photograph and blocked the bride and groom, I have no photos to show you of the ceremony.  Here is, however, the wedding canopy,the traditional stacks of wedding foods, and the Professional Photographer, as well as a group of schoolchildren visiting on a class trip:

We finished up our trip by walking through the small folk museum on the village grounds, which is organized around the theme of the typical year in the life of a traditional village, including holidays, important events (weddings, funerals, a child's first birthday), and traditional handicrafts as well as such household chores as grinding meal or making kimchi. All of the displays (including the buildings in the village) had English signs and good English descriptions, which meant you didn't really need a guide to appreciate it.  I took this photo of a class of preschoolers who were watching with fascination as an animatronic figure ground grain with a traditional grinding stone.  They were mesmerized:

The village covers quite a large area, and is surrounded by tree-covered mountains - on a gorgeous fall day, it was a beautiful place to be.  As a resident of Korea, I was already familiar with much of the architecture and many of the customs, but I still found the tour to be interesting and informative.  From an aesthetic standpoint, it was absolutely lovely.  For visitors who have only a short time to spend in Korea, the Village provides an excellent overview of many Korean traditional and cultural practices, as well as examples of traditional Korean architecture in a variety of building types.  The Folk Village is in Suwon, a bustling suburb of Seoul, but when you walk through the gates, it's hard to believe you aren't in a rural village out in the country.  And, yes - I'll be back.

Directions, maps, prices and general information can be found here.

Tuesday, September 18, 2012

Gangnam Style, Explained


If you have any sort of contact with the outside world pop culture these days, you will have undoubtedly run across the smokin'-hot K-pop (Korean pop music) hit, Gangnam Style by Korean pop artist Psy.  The first time I ran across it (compliments of Son #3, home on a weekend pass from the Korean Army) I thought it was a catchy, quirky little viral video that would certainly appeal to those of us who live - or have lived - in Korea (particularly Seoul) but not much else.  When Son#3 assured me that it had gone viral across the US, I still took it with a grain of salt.

Less than a week later, I ran across a video link on FaceBook posted by a friend in the US, followed quickly by many other videos, links, and memes testifying to the growing popularity of the trend. After I saw Psy's performance on the SNL season premiere, however, I had to admit that Gangnam Style really was the international sensation Son#3 had claimed.

By now, most people probably know that Gangnam is a posh, high-rent district in Seoul.  But many of the other 'inside' jokes and subtleties of the video can be easily lost on those who don't speak Korean - including yours truly.  So when I ran across this fabulous post on Gangnam Style written by Hails over at her wonderful blog Coffee Helps, I knew I had to share it with the world - or, at least, my little part of it.

Hails does a great job of explaining some of the language in the video and - best of all - the tongue-in-cheek fun that Psy is poking at Gangnam's style and culture.  She also very accurately conveys the excitement - and maybe a tiny bit of battle fatigue - that we here in Korea are experiencing now that a local boy has made good, positioned as he is at #1 on iTunes at the moment.

If you don't know who Psy is, this segment from ABC's 'Nightline' provides a good overview:

Sunday, September 16, 2012

Silent Sunday

Sights in Seoul: The Leeum Samsung Museum

For those of you who were wondering what my Giant Spider Silent Sunday photo was about a zillion  a few weeks ago, I am finally here to provide the answer, and, no, it was not a photograph from a recent trip to the zoo (aren't you relieved?)
Warning:  I've heard that these sculptures are no longer on display and can't find any reference to them on the website, so it's possible the exhibit has moved on.

The above photo comes to you via the Leeum Samsung Museum of Art, which is where MrLogical and I spent a few (alright, more than a few) Wednesdays ago (Korean Liberation Day) when we had the day off and it was raining too hard to do anything outside we decided it was high time to get another culture fix.  These particular sculptures outside the museum by Louise Bourgeois, are entitled 'Maman.'  I have never thought of the spider as a particularly maternal insect (yes, I know they're arachnids, but let's not split hairs, shall we?), but one presumes that Ms Bourgeois had her reasons.  In any case, it was, hands down, my favorite sculpture of the day, which may or may not say something about my parenting and/or my taste in art.

The Leeum is actually a bit of a hidden gem: not particularly large, it sits quietly at the end of a side street in Hanam-Dong, its giant metal spider sculptures and starkly modern architecture the only clues as to what lies inside - and what lies inside is really pretty breathtaking.  The museum's collection includes works by Warhol and Rothko as well as a number of other artists from Korea and many other countries.

It was pouring rain the day we went (a bit of a preview of the next week or so of typhoons we would get) and we were soaked by the time we walked the short distance from the subway station to the museum (they do have a parking garage, but the lot was already full by the time we got there a mere 1/2 hour after the museum opened - be warned.)  In typical efficient Korean fashion, though, there was a nifty umbrella stand at the front entrance to the museum, where you could lock up your umbrella, thereby avoiding dragging it, dripping, from gallery to gallery.

Main Lobby of the Museum

The entrance leads to a large, spacious lobby that contains a cafe' and gift shop as well as entrances to the three galleries:  Museum 1 and Museum 2 (permanent exhibits), and the Samsung Child Education and Cultural Center, which is also the area where the temporary exhibits are housed.  We bought a combined (discounted) ticket to all three exhibits, but you may buy a ticket to any one of the three exhibits - there is a ticket-taker at each of the exhibit entrances, and you'll have to show your ticket at each entrance.

Note:  taking photos is not allowed in any of the exhibits, although you are permitted to photograph the entrance area, gift shop, and the rest of the building.  It's worth noting that the building itself is a work of art, both inside and out.
Entrance to the Samsung Child Education and Cultural Center

We started in the Samsung Cultural Center, which typically houses temporary exhibits, and which, when we were there, was featuring a number of pieces of video art, including our personal favorite:  a series of  four wall-mounted video screens, simultaneously showing a man doing the Sun Salute in four vastly different settings, including the middle of  a rice paddy.  In one, he was in a littered side street in what looked like downtown Seoul, early in the morning when the only other people out were street cleaners and the drunks who were heading home after a hard night of soju-drinking and noraebang (karaoke).  Considering the fact that he was barefoot, wearing a black business suit, and doing yoga in the middle of a street while being filmed at 5 or 6 am in downtown Seoul, he got relatively few stares.

The main temporary exhibit  - which was what originally caught my attention - was displayed in the Black Box theater:   a Media Art piece by Pippilotti Rist, which was entitled Spear to Heaven.  Basically, it consisted of a darkened room full of hanging translucent sheets of fabric, upon which were superimposed a variety of video images, including one really beguiling sheep in a supersaturated green meadow (my personal favorite.)  The images shone onto - and through - the fabric sheets, which you wandered among in the darkened room to the accompaniment of a slightly otherworldly soundtrack and the hushed silence of the viewers.  Occasionally, you'd find yourself looking at your own shadowed silhouette superimposed onto a transparent image, which - as we later understood - was the point of the whole thing.  While MrL and I don't quite sink to the level of having a tapestry of poker-playing dogs on our living room wall, neither are we exactly on the cutting edge when it comes to art appreciation.  Coming from the generation that we do, walking around a darkened room with the swaying fabric, eerie background sounds, and odd video images only made us speculate on the fact that anyone under the influence of a hallucinogenic substance would probably get his or her money's worth in that exhibit.  That being said, it was still An Experience, and I'm sure we were the better for it.
Entrance to Museum 2- Modern Art

Having absorbed  Ms. Rist's work to the best of our ability, we headed back to the main lobby, where we entered the second Gallery ("Museum 2") which houses a permanent collection of modern works, that include a number of well-known artists in a variety of media.  This collection - our favorite - included sculpture, photography, and video pieces as well as more conventional paintings.  The architecture of this part of the gallery is beautifully designed to set off the work, and huge windows strategically placed throughout frame exterior views of the building and its grounds (including those fabulous spiders) as pieces of art in their own right.  We spent the longest time in this gallery, and absolutely fell in love with the photography of Korean artist Bien-U Bae, whose haunting Pine Tree Seriescaptivated us both.

The third gallery ("Museum 1") contained traditional Korean art, running the gamut from breathtakingly old and fragile celadon ceramic pieces to ceremonial Buddhist statues, to works of traditional calligraphy and art.  The museum owns a number of 'treasures' - works designated by the Korean government as historically, artistically, or culturally signficant to the people and culture of Korea - which are accordingly marked.  Especially nice for non-Koreans are the English-language descriptions of the pieces, which were very helpful to us.  The Buddhist art - statues, pagodas, incense burners - was especially fascinating to us as Westerners, as was much of the painting and calligraphy, which included black-and-white manuscripts, sketches, and drawings as well as maps and watercolors.  This gallery was - as were all of them - on three floors; in this one, you started on the 3rd floor, and worked your way down via a circular stairwell which was as much a part of the art as anything in any of the galleries:

All of the exhibits eventually lead you back to the main lobby, where there is a cafe':

and, of course, a gift shop:

MrL and I drooled for a bit over a coffee-table book collection of Bien U-Bae's photographs, but eventually decided that we'd rather put the money toward buying some of his prints.  Thus, we left, empty-handed but very happy that we'd found this museum - practically on our back doorstep.

The Leeum Samsung Museum of Art is located in Hanam-dong, across the street and a few blocks west and north of the Hangangjin subway station and Yongsan International School of Seoul (YISS.)  It is approximately a 10-minute walk from the subway station, and is well-marked by signs in both English and Korean.  Parking is very limited, so public transport is recommended.  More information is provided at the link above.  

Wednesday, September 5, 2012

If You've Been Wondering: Typhoon Update

Rainy view of Mt. Namsan from our apartment courtesy of Typhoon Bolaven

It has been pointed out to me by more than just one person that my last blog post was something along the lines of 'Here comes the apocalyptic typhoon!' - after which I apparently dropped off the grid, blogwise, leaving some readers to think that perhaps things were a bit more dramatic than they actually were.  Naturally, since I knew we were all just fine, it didn't occur to me that I might have left a reader or two dangling - which I really do apologize for.  So....just in case you've been wondering whether or not the Asia Vu family survived Typhoon Bolaven - which I mentioned in my last melodramatic post was about to hit Seoul and cause untold devastation - have no fear.

My blogging silence has had nothing to do with Bolaven -I've actually just gone back to work after a summer off -, so if you've been picturing the AsiaVu family shivering in blankets and gratefully accepting cups of hot soup from Red Cross volunteers, let me put your minds at rest and assure you we came through without a scratch. In fact, Bolaven turned out to be something of a letdown as far as typhoons go.  Oh, there was some wind and a bit of lashing rain, but honestly - I've lived through plenty of thunderstorms in the Texas Hill Country that were far more frightening.  In addition, being halfway up a 34-story building means we didn't need to huddle in corners in fear of a neighbor's grill/diving board/lawn chair/golden retriever flying through our window at any moment.

The typhoon did end up causing great destruction to the south of us, though.  A friend of mine who lives south of Seoul posted on FaceBook that she'd just watched her neighbor's garage roof tear off and fly through the air - something that we really didn't see in our part of the country.  Based on the photos of the damage and cost reports from other areas, it looks like we dodged a bullet here in Seoul, and we're all very grateful.

As it turned out, Bolaven ended up taking a more westerly course than the folks at Weather Central (or whatever it's called in Korean) had anticipated, which meant that we in Seoul spent the day in the wind and the rain tensely awaiting the arrival of the 'real' typhoon - which never actually arrived.

Schools were closed, however, which made Son#2 and his friends very happy.

Following on Bolaven's heels, only a day later was Typhoon Temblin, which - while not very windy - efficiently produced just enough rain to make everyone thoroughly wet and miserable- thankfully, without causing any flooding.  Since MsCaroline travels to work via public transportation, she can report that the 'no flooding' statement does not necessarily apply to the particular sidewalks and streets which she navigates to and from work, but she is not going to be a complainer.

To sum up:  There was a lot of rain and wind, and we're all perfectly fine - just in case you've been wondering.