Bar those with a fair knowledge of Korean history, few have ever heard of the kingdom of Baekje. Though long swallowed up by the sands of time, this ancient dynasty was one of East Asia’s cultural high-water marks, and its influence can still be felt today: their rulers introduced Buddhism to both Korea and Japan, while Japan’s own emperors have Baekje lineage. In addition, Baekje artisans produced jewellery of incredible beauty, as well as pottery of a quality unmatchable to this day.
Together with Silla and Goguryeo, Baekje was one of Korea’s fabled Three Kingdoms. It came about in 18BC after some family in-fighting: the nascent kingdom of Goguryeo passed from founder to first son, ticking off the third son, Onjo, who chose to establish his own kingdom. Nothing remains of his first capital – Wiryeseong, in present-day Seoul – so to explore this forgotten piece of history we need to head further south to Gongju.
Just over an hour’s bus-ride from Seoul, it’s a small, initally unassuming city that functioned as the Baekje capital from 475-538 AD. It’s incredibly user-friendly – all notable sights are within easy walking distance. I choose to head straight for the royal tombs, a clutch of grassy hillocks inside which the kings of Baekje were interred. All tombs were looted over the centuries, bar that of King Muryeong (r. 501-523), which was found intact in 1971, yielding thousands of pieces of Baekje jewellery, as well as the skeletons of the king and his wife. The fruits of this astonishing discovery now fill a nearby museum, which is one of the best in the land. The highlight is, without doubt, an elaborate golden diadem once worn like rabbit ears atop the regal scalp.
A short walk back towards the city centre is Gongsanseong, a Baekje-era fortress. Dotted with fluttering, faux-imperial flags, its bulky walls provide a spectacular view of the city – and, if you choose to walk their occasionally steep circumference, a strenuous work-out. The tree-filled interior has its own delightful walking trails, connecting a series of sumptuously-painted pavilions. Standing next to one is a plaque commemorating a pair of trees which once gave a Baekje king shelter while his fortress was attacked. In an early demonstration of regal folly, he then made the trees State Ministers.
Now for my own personal highlight of a trip to Gongju: eating. Opposite the fortress entrance is Gomanaru, one of my favourite restaurants in the whole country. The food here is appropriately traditional, with most diners opting for the full banquet meals. These see the table covered with two dozen side dishes offering all manner of delights. After sampling some fern bracken, acorn jelly, soybean broth, shellfish, river fish, spicy tofu and at least six kinds of kimchi, it’s quite possible to get full without touching the main course (which is usually barbequed duck). For a few dollars more, it’s possible to have the whole thing covered with edible flowers.
And then to bed. On my visit I chose to sleep by the royal tombs in a traditional wooden house known as a hanok. With sliding doors, paper-covered walls, tiled roofs and a floor heated from beneath with tickling flames, this is present day Korea’s closest approximation to Baekje’s own domiciles. To further the spirit of tradition, I purchase a bottle of makgeolli, a creamy rice-wine enjoyed by Koreans for centuries – Gongju is famed for its chestnuts, and its own makgeolli is flavoured as such. After enjoying my drink under the stars, the warmth and smell of the wood fire means that I’m alseep in seconds, dreaming about Korea’s days of dynasty.