Looking into Korea's Past

Looking into Korea's Past photo

Just an hour away from Seoul in Yongin, Gyeonggi Province is another side of Korea, an ancient one, set in a place called the Korean Folk Village. Less than a century ago, much of what makes the country so modern today didn't exist and people lived much more simply. Farming was by far the most common occupation and people lived in villages, not cities. The 243-acre Korean Folk Village is the perfect place for a day trip from your base at any of a great range of Seoul hotels.

In this part living history museum, part theme park, you'll be taken back to a time when things were simpler. As you enter the village through the main gate, you'll be standing in front of the Naesammun or inner three gates, erected outside a palace or manor house. Nearby, you'll see a rock onto which people tie their messages and wishes, a common sight in ancient Korea. The folk village offers a great way to experience historic Korea, with houses, food, scheduled musical performances and traditional ceremonies, all representing the different eras in Korean history.

Poet Lee Eun-sang and his colleagues originally came up with the idea for the folk village as a way to protect traditional villages slated for demolition. In 1974, they brought 230 traditional buildings to Gyeonggi where the village now stands. That was 40 years ago. Today, the Village is the only one of its kind dedicated to celebrating Korean history and culture.

The village has restored or reproduced over 260 traditional houses reminiscent of the late Chosun Dynasty. Each house in the complex tells a tale. Each roof and chimney offers a glimpse into the people who resided within. Farmers' houses usually come with short chimneys jutting out of the kitchen while affluent households dug holes in the ground for fire.

Beyond the pottery museum there's a 160 year-old manor house. This estate used to be located in Jangseong, South Jeolla, where it's customary to hang rice sheaves, later used to make rice cake soup, on a pole before the first full moon of the year. On the day itself, children sing songs to welcome in a bountiful year ahead.

Buildings relocated to and restored in the Folk Village not only include typical houses of commoners, farmers, and noblemen from the Southern, Central, and Northern parts of Korea, but also ones used for special purposes, such as the shrine of scholars, the provincial governor's office, a private school, a Buddhist temple, and a shaman's house.

Authenticity is the key here. Workers wear authentic costumes and make crafts such as spinning silk thread, weaving bags out of straw, forging steel for hoes and sickles, making pottery, bamboo ware, round willow baskets, Korean paper, brass ware, paper umbrellas, musical instruments, and furniture, as well as fermenting kimchi from cabbage grown on the property.

Part of the folk village experience is tasting some of the traditional Korean foods. Rice paddies and fields you see throughout the complex are where most of the ingredients come from. Farm workers cultivate rice, barley, wheat, cotton, ginseng, sweet potato, radish, and sesame in a traditional way so that you can see the whole process from seeding to harvesting. There's a food court in the marketplace of the village where you can purchase traditional dishes, including soup with rice. Be sure to try the village rice wine.

If you're interested in tools, you'll be amazed at the variety of farming tools. Each operation — plowing, seeding, raising topsoil, weeding, fertilizing, watering, harvesting, carrying, threshing, pounding, mat weaving, and cattle raising — required various different kinds and shapes of tools, many differing from region to region.

Herb doctors treated patients by administering Chinese medicine made by boiling medicinal herbs and materials from plants, animals and minerals. In the drugstore, you'll see an examining room where the doctor examined the patient and a pharmacy which dispersed medicines.

A wide assortment of festival activities throughout the year brings the folk village to life. You'll see and hear farmer's music and dance, mask dancing, a tug of war, and Kossaum, a treading the earth spirit festival and the first full-moon night festival which contributed to the harmony and unity of community members. Musicians play traditional Korean instruments, such as brass gongs, drums, trumpets, and whistles. The Farmers' Folk Band of Jeonla-do plays twice daily. Throughout the village, you have the opportunity to play games like Korean checkers, chess, archery, card games for adults, and stilts, stick-tossing, and pinwheels for children.