The most famous thing about Jeonju, the capital of Jeollabuk Province, is that it’s the origin of bibimbap, now an iconic Korean food. For tourists, by far the most popular destination is the Jeonju hanok maeul – a neighborhood of about 800 hanok (traditional Korean houses) which were built during the Joseon dynast and remain today.
I remember, when I first arrived at the Jeonju express bus station in the evening, and was trying to figure out which bus was heading towards my hostel, a British guy saw me, and asked me if I needed help. Even though he wasn’t sure which bus I should take, he did indicate the direction (in terms of getting to the correct district), which was helpful. I ran into that British guy again, and learned more about him, but that is for another post.
As far as I know (an I’m not any kind of historian, let alone a Korean historian), Jeonju first became prominent in Korean history when the United Silla kingdom was breaking up. One of the kingdoms which split from Silla was ‘Later Baekje’ (taking the name from one of the kingdoms Silla had conquered), and the capital of ‘Later Baekje’ was Jeonju. However, Later Baekje did not last long – it was conquered by Goryeo around the time that Silla itself fell.
The hanok maeul is an atmospheric place for a stroll. And I never got tired of looking at hanok. Even when I was in Seoul and had already seen plenty of Joseon-era buildings all over South Korea, I continued to enjoy looking at them. Of course, since the hanok maeul is both ~the place~ for tourists in Jeonju, and based on my observations, a place for trendy young people, there are lots of shops trying to separate passers-by from their won.
At the north-western edge of the hanok maeul is Jeondong Catholic Church. It was built between 1908-1914 by the missionary Xavier Baudounet, at the site where Korean Catholics were executed in 1781 and 1801 (the Joseon government did not tolerate Christianity until late in the 19th century).
A short walk away from Jeondong Catholic Church is Pungnam-mun.
Pungnam-mun is all which remains of the fortress wall which guarded the city in Joseon times.
I went to one of the many teahouses within the many alleys of the hanok maeul, sat down in the historic building on a cushion upon the raised wooden floor, and tried omija tea, a Korean herbal (caffeine-free) tea. It’s delicious, and I highly recommend that anybody who goes to South Korea tries it.
Jeollabuk, the province of which Jeonju is capital, is the rice bowl of South Korea, so its understandable Jeonju is the origin of a rice dish such as bibimbap.
Even though I’ve by now learned of a vegetarian restaurant in the hanok maeul serving bibimbap, I think it’s just as well that I took a bus across the (not that big) city to eat in a vegan restaurant there (yes, I ordered bibimbap, but I ordered other things too, and it was all delicious). First of all, I suspect it was cheaper than eating in the hanok maeul, even including the bus fare. Second of all, I got to see where most people in Jeonju live … which is high rise apartment buildings, with internet cafes, convenience stores, and old women selling persimmons on the street nearby.
I also had a conversation with a Canadian who had just moved to Jeonju to work as an English teacher, and I think it was possibly the most interesting conversation I ever had in South Korea. However, since we didn’t talk much about South Korea itself, I won’t go into it here.
The guy running the restaurant (who is South Korean) obviously heard a lot of it, and afterwards he asked me how long I had been a vegan. When I answered him, he replied that he had become a vegan around the same time I had.
One morning, I went up to Omokdae, a pavilion a short hill overlooking the hanok maeul.
It is said that Lee Seong-gye, a successful military general from the Goryeo kingdom, celebrated a victory over Japanese pirates at this pavilion in 1380. Of course, Lee Seong-gye, who was a member of the Jeonju Lee clan, is not most famous for defeating Japanese pirates. He’s most famous for overthrowing the Goryeo dynasty, making himself the king of the Korean peninsula, and thus becoming as the very first ruler of the Joseon dynasty, which lasted about 500 years.
In fact, there is an important monument to Lee Seong-gye, better known as King Taejo, in the hanok maeul, which I will save for the next post.
Until then, enjoy the view.