Nagan Eupseong Folk Village
Rich in History and Well-Preserved
This was the second stop on the JRS day tour out of Suncheon.
It’s been a UNESCO World Heritage Site since 2011 and I can easily see why, as it’s one of Korea’s best preserved fortress towns and traditional folk villages. We’ve always been interested in folk traditions in any country, so we were delighted to visit here and learn more about Korean old customs.
Very brief history: In 940 a small village on the site changed its name to Nagan-gun under the Goryeo Dynasty. It began to flourish in the later 1300s under the Joseon (Chosun) Dynasty. Then, in 1397 Kim Bin-gil raised an army against Japanese intruders, built an earthen fortress wall here and defeated the enemy. However, during King Sejong’s reign (perhaps Korea’s most important king) from 1418-1450, the wall was rebuilt with stone, and the village within it further developed, remaining virtually intact and unchanged for hundreds of years.
It is very much a tourist attraction now, with 1.3 million visitors recorded in 2013. But, the beauty is that it is also still a working, living village and not just a showpiece, where all the workers go home to someplace else at night. It’s unique for its setting, completely enclosed by stone fortress walls with three main gates, built to protect the inhabitants from marauding Japanese pirates. The gates were built in a grand style with painted curving tile roofs and beautiful decorated eaves. If you climb up on the wall from one of the gates, you get a good view out over the village, and across to rice paddies outside.
The village is crammed with narrow alleyways, leading to vegetable plots, penned animals, a lotus pond, many fruit trees, and adobe and stone thatched homes, and a few larger buildings with slate roofs.
We thought a visit here was a wonderful way of getting a glimpse of what rural life was like hundreds of years ago, and continuing today in some places. It’s fascinating to wander along the narrow dusty lanes with mud and thatch houses, trying to imagine what living here would be like. Our time was rushed, but what we saw was very interesting: village life and how they are maintaining some traditions. There are of course modern touches now—like electricity and cars and motorbikes—but still it’s a different way of life; small houses in a small community—maybe around 100 households now, with 280 people living in the area. It was an interesting juxtaposition to see old houses, with shiny new cars parked in the dusty yards. Each house has an enclosed yard, and we see fruit trees, small patches of vegetables, sesame drying on straw mats or a tarpaulin, a dog or a baby sleeping in the shade. We’re told that each house has 3 rooms in a line, an outhouse, a shed (for equipment or cows) and a toilet.
Outside the entrances to the village are special totem poles carved from wooden logs—they are often grouped in twos or fours and are kind of like guardians of the village. Each pole has a funny or scary face carved on it. Inside, all the houses have a street number, many etched on a wooden totem pole. Probably the guardian of that house.
Inside, a couple of the larger buildings have curved tile roofs; they were/are the official buildings, like the prison (fun to visit and watch a re-enactment of a prison beating), the governor’s house, the administrative office and the village school. The other houses have thatched roofs and it was interesting to see that many of them have pumpkins growing on the roofs.
Many houses are still inhabited, some are guesthouses now, a few are small shops or cafes, and some are demo places for traditional folk arts and crafts (for example, items made of rice straw, pottery, a wishing rope, calligraphy, and traditional Korean musical instruments). We were interested in the rice crafts, and what you can do with rice straw.
The scientists in our party also noted the large stacks of rice straw, many covered in black plastic. The straw is ammoniated, which is a way to improve digestibility.
The oldest and biggest tree in the village is a giant Ginkgo bilobe, which some believe is as old as from 1397. On our way out we also noted the Monument and Pavilion of General Lim Gyeong-Up. He was governor of Nagan in the 1620s and was much respected for good works. It was erected in 1628 when the General left Nagan. Sacrificial rites are given to him on Full Moon’s Day every year.
It’s a really interesting place but we had limited time, plus it was so hot and humid it was actually not very pleasant. Generally, one wouldn’t choose to come here in the hot summer. We missed a lot so it would be fun to return one day, in cooler weather and spend more time.
Open daily, with hours varying depending on season. Adults 4,000 won (US$3.30), middle and high school students 2,500 won (US$2), and elementary school children 1,500 won (US$1.25).