Martial Arts Madness

Trip Start Dec 02, 2011
Trip End Dec 02, 2012

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Flag of Korea Rep.  , South Chungcheong,
Saturday, April 28, 2012

Today was Day 2 of Asan's three day Yi Sun Shin Festival. The big item of interest on the schedule for me was the "Joseon Military Service Examination Reenactment". During past festivals, the performances took place along the riverbank north of town, but this year they were held on the soccer field of Onyang Oncheon Elementary School to make them more accessible to visitors.

I arrived at the school around noon. There was a large section of the field roped off that I assumed was the performance area, a large TV attached to the side of a trailer, an assortment of "authentic" Korean traditional weapons on display, ponies rides, and a small cluster of kids both making and attempting to fly kites.

What there wasn't was a posted list of show times. I had to summon all of my meager Korean skills: saying "when?" and pointing to a picture of the show, to learn the next show time from some friendly old Korean ladies who offered me an English brochure and a free bottle of water. I was almost foiled when the two women had what I assumed was a disagreement about the show time, but I went with the earlier of the two times I was told just in case. In retrospect, I think one may have been telling me the start of the equestrian show and the other the time of the unmounted demonstration.

The show started at 1:30, so I had just over an hour to spare. There was nothing to entertain me at the elementary school, apart from a small boy who clearly had no idea how to fly a kite. I watched him repeatedly throw his kite into the air only to have it plummet back to the ground. I really wanted to help, but I thought that might be a little creepy so instead I headed back to the station. Hopefully his caretaker or a festival worker came over to clue him in.

I decided to check out the "e-Sports Zone". I didn't know exactly what it was before I arrived at the tent. It turned out to be filled with computers where visitors could play Yi Sun Shin video games. I read a blurb on some website somewhere that the city of Asan had paid a company to develop Yi Sun Shin themed video games. I thought it was an interesting way to try to promote tourism.

There were several cute but repetitive video games near the entrance where players could fire cannons from a turtle boat at Japanese ships or just play the drums, but on the deck of a Joseon naval ship of course. There was also a larger bank of computers for serious gamers running what appeared to be a naval strategy game. I assumed the teams were Korea vs Japan during Hideyoshi's invasion of Korea. The players on those computers may even have been engaged in a tournament since pro-video gamer is an actual career in South Korea, although none of the afternoon players looked any older than middle school age.

For children not interested in computer games (sacrilege!), there was an area where they could pilot remote-controlled turtle ship models or assemble cute cardboard models of Yi Sun Shin. I also noticed a small stage where something I called "k-pop dancing robots" were scheduled to perform at 1:30. Unfortunately, that was the same time as the martial arts show, so I had to pass it up. It was a tough choice, but I suspect I will see the robots at the Yeosu Expo when I visit the Robot Pavilion. If not, I figured I could always check the internet for video. Before leaving the E-Sports Zone, I grabbed a cardboard Yi Sun Shin for later assembly.

Finally, it was time for the Joseon martial arts demo. It was very cool, although many parts were more flashy than practical. It supposedly recreated the Joseon military promotion tests, but I find it hard to believe twirling your sword in the palm of your hand by the back of the blade was a key skill for medieval Korean officers, no matter how technically difficult. The highlight of the show was the mounted weapons and archery demonstration, including a bit of acrobatic trick riding.

I met an American woman in the crowd who knew some of the performers, or at least someone who had trained with them. Apparently it was the same group that does daily demos near Seoul Tower in that city's Namsan Park. The horses were only for special occasions, though. I was told her friend trained with them in Suwon and apparently anyone could do it, although I imagine only the professionals were in the show.

The show began with the horseback riding, and I positioned myself along the side of the arena so I could have a good angle on the action, but I made sure to stand a safe distance away and out of the firing line. There was an annoying guy in bright yellow who kept getting way too close to targets and positioning himself directly in the middle of my field of view. I gradually got caught-up in the show, and in the process forgot about staying out of the line of fire, so without thinking I shifted into the position he had first occupied when he decided to move to another part of the arena. I was reminded of my initial analysis that it was a bad place to stand when some sort of hollow coconut target hit the ground right next to me after being smacked by a flail. After that, I made sure to pay more attention to keeping a safe angle and distance than to what I was photographing.

At the break between mounted and unmounted performances, I switched over to the sitting area on the side of a hill. I was now definitely a safe distance away with my butt firmly planted on the ground so there was no chance of drifting to somewhere unsafe. I noticed Yellow Shirt changed positions as well and somehow found a way to stand even more dangerously close to the cutting targets. He seemed to have decided the safety rope was a suggestion to be ignored in search of what I hope were amazing shots worth risking a sword to the face for. For next time, he might want to just invest in a better zoom lens.

So near coconut beaning and occasional ballet-style performances aside, the show was excellent. If it is the same group from Seoul Tower, I highly recommend seeing them perform if you're in Seoul. Although the horses were certainly the best part for me, even without them I think fans of martial arts action would enjoy it.

After the show, I went back to the main fair area. While I was waiting to meet-up with some friends, I saw the distribution of Yi Sun Shin's birthday "cake". First, visitors were invited to ceremonially participate in the making of the "cake" by trying their hand at pounding out a traditional rice cake. Most of the volunteers were adorable children who were only slightly bigger than the large, and presumably heavy, wooden mallet used to make the rice cakes. They were given ample help from parents and festival staff so no children were crushed by giant mallets in the making of the rice cakes. At least not that I saw.

When the real rice cakes were ready to serve, boxes and boxes of rice cakes and other rice-based "treats" were opened and their contents placed onto paper plates to be distributed to festival goers. The rice cakes seemed to be free on a first-come-first-serve basis, where by first-come-first-serve I mean first-come-to-push-your-way-to-the-front-of-the-pack. I didn't figure I could out elbow the ajumas, so I contented myself to just watch the proceedings. Plus the rice cakes might have been filled with bean paste, although I saw no evidence so this is pure libel on my part.

When I finally met up with my friends, we just hung out in the area next to the main stage where there were a stream of what I assumed to be traditional Korean performances taking place. Later in the night, the traditional performers were replaced by K-pop groups. I didn't know if any of them were famous, certainly they weren't super-famous, but the main square was packed, and I finally had to break out my elbows when I needed to cross from one side of the plaza to the other. I might have gone the long way around, but I didn't have time. It was an emergency because I needed to buy a birthday cake for my friend before she realized I wasn't actually in the bathroom...

All in all, it was a pleasant festival, aided in no small part by the excellent spring weather. There wasn't anything mind-blowing, but it was relatively close to Seoul and there was enough cute, camp, and cool to make it worth a visit if you like festivals and have the weekend free.

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