Jeonju’s main attraction is undoubtedly its splendid hanok village (한옥 마을), a city-centre thatch of largely traditional housing. Highlights include a cathedral, an ancient shrine and a former Confucian academy, as well as museums for calligraphy, paper and wine; almost all sights are free, and there’s enough to keep you busy for a full day. The best way to enjoy it is simply to turn up and wander around – whether it be a museum, a traditional restaurant or a photogenic house, there’s something to see around every corner. There are no opening times or entry fees to the area and it remains a functioning part of the city, one that’s particularly beautiful at night when most of the tourists have gone. The area has a distinct north–south divide – the north is far more polished and home to an ever-increasing number of bars and cafés, while the southern section is a pleasingly authentic and untouched slice of old Korea, with locals meandering up and down the narrow lanes as they have for decades. Musical pansori performances are frequent, and you may even be able to participate in traditional activities such as lantern-making or calligraphy.
The best place to get your bearings is Taejoro, a road that bisects the hanok village. Lightly trafficked and studded with small lights that glow at night, it has two information offices that can provide you with maps of the area. The eastern office offers free bike rental, though you’ll probably have to get there early to nab one.
Traditional arts and crafts in the hanok village
Traditional arts and crafts in the hanok village
Near the eastern end of Taejoro, the road bisecting the hanok village, you’ll find the Traditional Craftworks Exhibition Hall, a traditionally styled wooden structure which holds crafts created by Jeonju artisans – a great place to hunt for souvenirs. If you’re lucky you may get to see one of the traditional song and dance shows that are occasionally held just outside the complex – there’s a list of performance times on the hanok village map. North of Taejoro, exhibits in the Traditional Wine Museum aren’t terribly interesting, but the beauty of the hanok building – and the fact that free tipples are occasionally handed out – make it worth a quick peek. Of more interest is the Korean Paper Institute, where beautiful examples of products made with handmade paper (한지; hanji) are on display, many available to buy; if you ask nicely, you may even be able to try your hand at making a kite or lantern.
South of Taejoro, and overlooking the stream that marks the hanok village’s southern boundary, is the Gangam Calligraphy Museum; stored inside are wonderful examples of writing from some of Korea’s best-known calligraphers. Artistic beauty of a different kind can be found a five-minute walk east along the streamside road, at the Traditional Culture Center, which puts on pansori shows every Friday. The mournful singing and sparse drum-raps are well complemented by the old-fashioned beauty of the building, the performers are usually of an extremely high standard, and the shows are not over-long, making this an absolute must-see. Other nights see similar performances, though of slightly lower quality. Other programmes run by the centre include a free tea ceremony course, and irregular cheap lessons in cooking, fan-making, traditional music and the like; consult a tourist office for details.
Lastly, there are a few interesting craft shops in the hanok village. Abo sells jewellery made in a vaguely dynastic style, and the earrings, bangles and bracelets are all reasonably priced. Practically next door, Midang sells beautiful silks and traditional attire made with a contemporary twist. On the other side of the road, you’ll find a few decent pottery shops.
Usually marketed to foreigners as “Korean opera”, pansori (판소리) performances are a modern-day derivative of the country’s shamanist past. Songs and incantations chanted to fend off evil spirits or ensure a good harvest slowly mutated over the years into ritualized presentations; the themes evolved, too, with tales of love and despair replacing requests to spirits unseen.
A good pansori may go on for hours, but each segment will be performed by a cast of just two – a female singer (소리꾼; sorikkun) and a male percussionist (고수; gosu). The sorikkun holds aloft a paper fan, which she folds, unfolds and waves about to emphasize lyrics or a change of scene. While the gosu drums out his minimalist finger taps on the janggo, he gives his singer words – or, more commonly, grunts – of encouragement known as chuimsae, to which the audience are expected to add their own. The most common are “chalhanda!” and “olshi-gu!”, which are roughly equivalent to “you’re doing good!” and “hm!”, a grunt acknowledging appreciation, usually delivered with a refined nod. Just follow the Korean lead, and enjoy the show.