While the highlight of the Third World Ceramic Biennale is in Icheon, the festival is actually spread among Icheon, Yeoju and Gwangju in Gyeonggi Province.
Because this year’s events have been prepared as exhibitions that can be experienced rather than just viewed, a weekend trip to the three areas is more than worthwhile.
Icheon has long been associated with fine porcelain but it was in the late 1960s when Japanese tourists began flocking to Korea that traditional Korean ceramics became a popular tourism product. Since then a ceramics village has formed around Icheon’s Sugwang-ri and Saeum-dong.
The heyday for Icheon ceramics came in the 1970s as Koreans rediscovered their own traditional culture and numerous ceramics outlets set up shop in the area. Today, there are over 300 ceramics shops and some 40 traditional kilns that supply the shops with ceramics ware for both the domestic and export markets.
Icheon Haegang Ceramics Museum ((031) 634-2266) was established to commemorate the achievements of the late Haegang, who dedicated his life to recreating the legacy of Goryeo celadon. Goryeo celadon tradition had died out during the Japanese colonial period.
The museum has extensive holdings of not only celadon ware but Buncheong and white porcelain as well.
Over in Gwangju, a kiln site dating back to 1752 is a testament to the long history of ceramic making in the area. In 1795, the kilns here were appointed to supply ceramic ware for the royal court, making Gwangju the center of Joseon-period white porcelain. Unfortunately, the area’s function as a royal supplier of porcelain was discontinued in 1894 and a civilian owned kiln shut down in 1920 due to financial difficulties.
Oddly, an elementary school was set up on a hill formed of broken porcelain pieces from the shut-down kiln three years later. And in 2003, part of the school building no longer in use was converted into Bunwon Royal Porcelain Porcelain Museum ((031) 766-8465, where visitors can view white porcelain works, as well as try their hand at making porcelain pieces of their own.
Over in Yeoju, a fertile area famous for its rice as well as ceramics, very few ceramics shops remain today, particularly following the financial crisis of late 1997 which forced many workshops to close their doors.
However, it has rich connections to the Joseon royal family period. It is in Yeoju that the tomb of King Sejong, the scholar-king who invented among many other things, Hangeul, the Korean alphabet, is located. Sejong is also credited with having invented the sundial and the rain gauge and fostered many noted scholars. ((031) 885-3123)
Another royal personage associated with Yeoju is Queen Myeongseong, also known as Empress Min. The royal consort of Emperor Gojong, the 26th Joseon king, she played an active role in diplomacy as the country tried to open its doors to the outside world. In October 1895 the queen was assassinated by the Japanese.
The house where she lived until the age of eight is located in Yeoju. Built in 1687, only one structure remained before several other buildings were rebuilt in 1995, giving it the look of a house of a nobility.
A memorial hall lies next to the house where materials and artifacts related to the queen are on exhibition. There is also a 161-seat auditorium which runs a film on the life of the tragic Myeongseong ((031) 880-1881).
The highlight of any visit to Yeoju is Silleuksa Temple ((031) 885-6916),which is said to have been built during the reign of King Jinpyeong of Silla Kingdom. Back in the 14th century, it was a large temple with nearly 200kan, one kan constituting an area enclosed by two pillars.
There are several myths surrounding the origin of the temple’s name. One has it that a wild horse appeared in a village during the time of King Gojong of Goryeo and the villagers could not tame it. When Buddhist monk Indang came and held the stirrup, the horse suddenly became quiet. This version would have it that Silleuksa derived its name from the fact that spiritual power was used to tame a horse.
A pavilion that looks out to the Namhan River offers a majestic view of the jade-colored river and the wide stretch of pebble beach where one can enjoy a cool breeze. There is direct access to the Yeoju venue of the Ceramic Biennale from the temple, about a five-minute walk.
There is an old Korean saying that says that even Mt. Geumgang should be viewed after a meal. When visiting the Ceramic Biennale, make sure to taste Icheon rice from the rice bowl of Korea. Gomijeong ((031) 634-4831) is one of the numerous restaurants in Icheon that serve white rice with an assortment of side dishes.
Thick beef broth eaten with rice is the most famous dish of Gwangju. You will see many restaurant signs saying “Someori Gukbap,” literally meaning cow head soup and rice. The dish dates from the old days when people traveling from the Gyeongsang provinces to Seoul to sit for the civil service exam stopped over in Gwangju.
While most people associate makguksu, or buckwheat noodle, with Chuncheon, Yeosu is also well known for its version of the popular and cheap noodle dish. A place to try out is Bongcheon Makguksu ((031) 884-0471)