Visiting Seoul’s lavish royal palaces might help one imagine the lifestyles of kings and aristocrats … but what was the daily grind like for mere commoners and country folk of days gone by?
Today, we’re off to see a theme park with a difference: one that transports people not to the Joseon of court ceremonies and rarefied ritual, but to the Joseon of farmers’ traditions and the seasonal rhythms of rural life.
The Korean Folk Village (한국민속촌, Hanguk Minsokchon) is located in Yongin, a city close enough to Seoul to be served by the capital’s urban rail network. There are several transportation options available from downtown Seoul, including the metro and various bus services, but I was in the mood for something a little different. As a railway enthusiast – and since I was in no particular hurry – I settled on a somewhat indirect route involving a rather special tourist train that brought me from Seoul to Suwon, where I transferred to a Bundang Line service bound for Sanggal Station. From there, a local bus service brought me to within walking distance of the front gate.
The following map doesn’t necessarily depict my exact route, but it should help give an idea of the distances involved.
I arrived just a few minutes after the stated 09:30 opening time, though I found the entrance already quite crowded even at this fairly early hour. It may have been Monday, but it was also the long Chuseok weekend and the country was in full holiday mode.
For many, that of course meant dressing in traditional hanbok: not a common sight on ordinary days but nearly ubiquitous during this major festive period.
The Korean Folk Village consists primarily of a collection of private residences and other buildings brought over from different parts of the Korean peninsula, assembled into thematic neighbourhoods representing various regions and ways of life. It’s so easy to get this sort of thing wrong, either through a lack of concern for authenticity or a slavish devotion to it, but I think that the Folk Village strikes a nice balance, with the real countryside setting in the forested hills of Yongin adding a bit of rustic charm and the modern tourist paraphernalia – including the main shop areas and food courts – mostly confined to the periphery. I liked reading the descriptive sign-boards (with good English translations) describing the history and architecture of each structure, but I especially enjoyed simply wandering about this sprawling open-air museum, savouring the countryside atmosphere and appreciating this brief retreat from the striking, occasionally overwhelming modernity of downtown Seoul.
Here’s a small taste of the rich variety in architectural styles displayed across the Korean Folk Village. In addition to different geographical regions, the houses also reflect the diverse social classes of their former owners, with farmers and yangban, merchants and scholars alike represented.
The “exhibits” standing here aren’t limited to private homes. There are workshops, farm structures, shrines and monuments, and – perhaps most impressively – large public buildings complete with walled compounds, such as a local government office (where re-enactments of old-time punishments are held)…
…a stately traditional garden with a lavishly decorated pavilion…
… the campus of an old-fashioned Confucian institute…
…and, in a serene setting up in the thickly wooded hills above the village, past a monumental archway…
…there’s even a complete temple compound.
However, one shouldn’t think that the Folk Village is just a static collection of dusty old buildings. Performances and re-enactments of ancient ceremonies take place throughout the day, amongst them a wedding rite for members of the landed gentry…
…demonstrations of traditional crafts, like silk production…
…acrobatic stunts, equestrian events, and – perhaps loudest and most colourful of all – a so-called “farmers’ dance” held in an open-air amphitheatre on the village grounds.
One might rightfully question whether these performances are authentic or not (I suspect more than a little embellishment here and there), but there’s no questioning the sheer fun of listening to the music and watching those talented dancers show their skills on the earthen arena.
In the midst of all this, I of course took a short break for lunch – my choice being a simple and hearty plateful of freshly fried gamjajeon.
I considered having a proper sit-down, full-course meal, but the on-site restaurants were packed with Chuseok crowds. No matter, all that fat-soaked starch and carbohydrate should be enough to power me through the rest of the day. (^_^)
For rest and relaxation, there are quiet patches of tree-shaded space, as well as plenty of room for a leisurely stroll alongside – and across – the stream that runs through the heart of the village.
There’s also a small but nicely organised folk museum on the grounds, where exhibits provide information on various countryside customs that aren’t easily seen or no longer widely practised in modern-day Korea.
In one corner of the village is a rather tacky amusement park, with rides and attractions like a large (and, to judge from the long queue, rather popular) haunted house, but I barely glanced at it before shuffling off on my way out. I suspect that it was added some years ago to increase the facility’s appeal to younger visitors, but it’s easy enough to avoid if one thinks (as I did) that it spoils the atmosphere somewhat.
So, what did I think of the experience?
I’m no expert on Korean history and culture, so I certainly can’t pass judgement on the authenticity – or lack thereof – of the exhibits and performances offered, but I can say without hesitation that I had a really great time at the Korean Folk Village. It was a strong and quite educational commoners’ counterpoint to the floating world of palaces and perfumed nobles that one often associates with the Joseon era. Moreover, the farmers’ dance and various demonstrations (whether historically accurate or not) were great fun to watch. I think I’d be quite happy to drag friends and family here the next time I’m on a non-solo holiday in the Seoul metropolitan area.