This month your traveler sets foot in Gurye, Jeonnam-do, where yellow cornelian cherry blossoms are proudly showing themselves after weeks of last-ditch winter cold spells and heralding the long-awaited arrival of spring. There are a number of villages in Gurye, including Sangwi Maeul, or Sangwi Village. This is the first destination of your traveler’s trip to Gurye. The village commands the most magnificent view of cornelian cherry blossoms in Gurye as it stands at the highest elevation in the entire county. Another attraction of Sangwi Village is a narrow path lined with stone walls called Saranggil, or Path of Love. Here, lovers whisper words of their budding love while walking along this romantic path amid delicate, classical beauty.

Sangwi Village in Gurye has more cornelian cherries than other towns and the flowers are first to bloom every year.

Sangwi Village is naturally dubbed Sansuyu Maeul, or Village of Cornelian Cherry Blossoms, and hosts a festival of cornelian cherry blossoms every year. Other villages in the country bear the same nickname, including Bonghwa and uiseong in Gyeongsanbuk-do and Icheon in Gyeonggi-do, but none of them matches Sangwi Village. It is not only that Sangwi Village has more cornelian cherries; it is also because Sangwi is the first every year to become shrouded under the golden, fresh clouds of cornelian cherry blossoms.

Now that your traveler has taken in the breathtaking scenery of golden clouds of blossoms, she demands her due portion of culinary delight.
What fare is best in this beautiful mountain village?
Sanchae jeongsik, or a full course meal of wild herbs and vegetables with rice and soup, is the obvious choice.

There are many restaurants in Gurye that are renowned for this special meal. The restaurant Geuyennal Sanchae Sikdang is especially well recommended. After your traveler sits on the warm floor of one of the rooms, two elderly ladies come in bearing a table full of dishes.

The dishes are prepared from a variety of seasonal wild herbs and vegetables. They are picked and dried in a manner that retains their unique tastes and flavors, and then blanched, fried, or grilled. For example, deodeok, a variety of bonnet bellflowers (Codonopsis lanceolata), is grilled, but only slightly to retain a crispy taste. With blanched herbs, grilled deodeok, pickled vegetables, salted fish, and other delicious side dishes, your traveler devoured her entire bowl of rice, leaving not a single grain. Hence, the reason the Koreans call tasty side dishes “robbers of your rice.”

Hwaeomsa is the largest and most majestic in Gurye.

Reaching out to those in need

Having eaten delectable food to her heart’s content, your traveler made her way up the near mountain to Hwaeomsa (Hwaeom Temple). Gurye is home to a number of Buddhist temples besides Hwaeomsa: Cheoneunsa (Cheoneun Temple), Yeongoksa (Yeongok Temple), and Munsusa (Munsu Temple), to name a few. Hwaeomsa is the largest and most majestic. Here and there on the grounds of Hwaeomsa are important cultural assets including Gakhwangjeon Hall (Korea’s largest extant wooden structure), a stone lantern in front of Gakhwangjeon Hall, and Sa Saja Samcheung Seoktap (a three-story stone pagoda with four pillars in the shape of lions).

Perhaps, the best time of year to visit the temple is spring, when the apricot blossoms are out. They are a strong red with a hint of black and are so sensually fragrant that they are emotionally moving even to the ascetic monks. These bewitching darkreddish blossoms called heungmae come into bloom only after the bright yellow blossoms of cornelian cherries wither and fall down to the ground, so your traveler was not able to experience them on this trip. She now turns toward Unjoru Pavilion.

Dried cornelian cherry berries.

Unjoru Pavilion is a traditional Korean house built in 1776 by Ryu I-ju, a local official during the reign of King Yeongjo (1724~1776) of the Joseon Dynasty. It was originally 99 kan (approximately 327m2), but just about one-third remains. Back then, only royal palaces could be as big as 100 kan. The name of the house, Unjoru Pavilion, literally means ‘house of clouds and birds.’ It may be interpreted either as a secluded house like a bird in the clouds or as an outstanding house where birds that fly over the clouds dwell.

Noteworthy at Unjoru Pavilion is a wooden rice chest placed in front of the storeroom. The stopper of the rice chest bears four Chinese characters pronounced as tain neunghae (他人能解), which means “Other people can open the chest.” Anyone in need of food could come, pull out the rectangular stopper, and get some rice from the wooden chest.

The house is also notable for its short chimney. It was built not even one meter high in order to not show the smoke to hungry neighbors when rice was being cooked in the kitchen. Your traveler feels humbled at her ancestors’ heart-warming consideration of their needy neighbors.

The Seomjingang (Seomjin River) flows with beautiful stories to tell

The final destination of this trip to Gurye is Hwagae Jangteo, or Hwagae Market. This street market crosses the border between Gyeongsangnam-do and Jeollanam-do. It was one of the five largest markets in Korea before the national liberation from Japanese colonial rule, and was always thronged with buyers, sellers, and spectators. Today, the marketplace bears a façade of modernity, but still exudes all of the vitality and human touch of a traditional country market of old with many attractions such as dotori muk (acorn jelly), jaecheop guk (small clam soup), wild edible greens, green tea, traditional inns called jumak, and taffy sellers. You can also see a traditional blacksmith where hoes, sickles, and other implements are still made in the traditional ways. What a sight to enjoy!

From Sangwi Village to Hwaeomsa to Unjoru Pavilion and finally to Hwagae Market, these fascinating tourist destinations are all along the Seomjingang. The river springs in Jinan, Jeollabukdo and runs more than 200 kilometers before it empties into the sea. It passes through Imsil, Gokseong, Gurye, and Osan; flows between Jirisan (Jiri Mountain) and Baegunsan (Baegun Mountain) and runs through Hadong and Gwangyang. The river must have a great deal of beautiful stories to tell to spring travelers.

*Article from Korea Magazine (March 2012)