An important tourist centre though not very well known among international travellers, Jeonju is famous for its hanji, hanbok, hanok and cuisine
Girls in delicate but colourful hanbok are walking, chatting and laughing all around me as I wander through the streets of Jeonju Hanok Village in the heart of Jeonju city, admiring the traditional South Korean houses known as hanok. Were it not for the occasional bleeps from smartphones and the horns of cars, I would have no trouble believing I had travelled back through time to the Joseon period.
Jeonju – the name means “perfect area” – is the capital of North Jeolla Province and just two hours from Seoul by KTX train. Located in the fertile Honam plain, Jeonju has been blessed with wonderful produce for centuries. The city is famous for its history, superb quality hanji (traditional handmade Korean paper) and authentic dishes, especially Jeonju bibimbap (mixed rice) and kongnamul gukbap (bean sprout soup with rice).
“In the old days, villages naturally formed around the Jeonju fortress. After the signing of the Japan-Korea Treaty in 1905, Japanese merchants wanted to destroy the fortress and invade the residential area. The Yangban (the nobility in the Joseon Dynasty) were not having that and so started to establish Hanok villages all over Pungnam-dong and Gyo-dong districts and that was the beginning of the Hanok Village we see today,” our guide explains.
Surrounded by some 700 hanoks, Jeonju’s Jeondong Cathedral, a mixture of Romanesque and Byzantine styles, stands out proudly in the crowd. Designed by Priest Poinel, who also designed Myeongdong Cathedral in Seoul, the cathedral was completed in 1914. Built in the place where the first Catholic martyr, Yun Ji-chung died in 1791, it is the largest and oldest western-style structure in Jeollanamdo and Jeollabukdo provinces.
“Jeonju is also regarded as the spiritual capital of the Joseon Dynasty because the Yi royal family originated here,” says Hong, our translator, as we make our way to Gyeonggijeon Shrine, the landmark of Jeonju Hanok Village.
The shrine houses the portrait of King Taejo, the founder of the Joseon Dynasty. The structure was partially destroyed during the Japanese invasion of Korea (1592-1598), and the existing structure was remodelled in 1614.
“Look at the portrait of King Taejo and you would see that unlike other kings who wore red, he wore a blue robe.
“According to oriental philosophy, the whole universe consists of five directions: east, west, south, north and centre. Each direction has its own colour and meaning. The east represents the beginning and the colour of the east is blue. King Taejo was the first king of Joseon dynasty so he wore a blue robe,” Hong explains.
“The shape of the hat also has a significant meaning. King Taejo used the cicada wing as the model for the officer’s hat. The cicada lives humbly underground for most of its life and it never harms the crops. King Taejo wanted to remind all state officers to be like the cicada: humble and always kind to the people.”
Apart from food, Jeonju’s proudest legacy is hanji, traditional handmade paper. In the past it was the product of the region and offered as homage to the king. Hanji is more durable than paper from other countries because the Koreans used two main materials: mulberry and hibiscus.
“From November to February, we would harvest year-old paper mulberry plants then steam them for easy peeling. We skinned the bark and boiled it in water mixed with ashes from bean or buckwheat stems for 4 to 5 hours before putting it in flowing water for at least 10 hours. Then we bleached it by placing it in water under the sun for 5 to 7 days,” explains an officer at the Hanji Industry Support Centre.
“To get the fibre, we placed the cleaned bark on a flat stone board and pounded it for an hour. We then mixed the fibres with water and the mucus from the hibiscus plant to make it more durable. The fibres were later strained through a bamboo screen, which was shaken back and forth and left to right to create a criss-cross pattern of fibres. The pulp was then dried on a wooden panel. In the old days, we would press it with heavy stones to squeeze the water out, and place the papers in a warm room or on the heated floor to dry. The dried sheet would be pounded to make the surface smoother and more lustrous.”
The laborious process makes hanji the most durable paper in the world. Indeed, the oldest text on hanji, Muggujungwang, is still well preserved and dates back about 800 years.
Koreans had various ways to use hanji. They used it to cover their doorframes to control the room temperature, and because of its high quality and it durability, the upper classes wrote on it to record various documents. Some would paste many layers of hanji onto a pre-made frame to make sewing baskets and trunks.
As I painstakingly glue the coloured hanji to the paper tray, my mind drifts to the famous Jeonju bibimbap, a dish believed to be based on a royal court recipe from the Joseon Dynasty.
A surreptitious glance at my watch tells me that it won’t be long before we can really get into the heart of Jeonju by sampling its cuisine.
IF YOU GO
< Thai AirAsia X (www.AirAsia.com) flies daily between Bangkok Don Mueang to Seoul Incheon.