Baekje in Buyeo

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

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Saturday, October 6, 2012

This weekend was the final weekend of the Baekje Cultural Festival (백제문화제). Baekje was one of Korea's three ancient kingdoms, and it covered most of the western half of modern day Korea. My guidebook said the festival alternated between two historical capitals of the Baekje kingdom, Buyeo and Gongju. However, I found the festival's website and activities were happening in both cities this year. Perhaps that is a change or perhaps one city has always had the main activities with the second city hosting a smaller version of the festival. At any rate, this year the city with the most going on was Buyeo (부여).

In addition to Buyeo and Gongju, there were a handful of activities taking place around Chungcheongnam-do province. The most interesting of those to me was the reenactment of the Hwangsanbeol battle at Nonsan. Unfortunately, there weren't a lot of details about the reenactment in the festival info. Really, there was basically just a picture, a place, and a time. I decided I would ask tourist bureau workers on the way for more info. The reenactment site was accessible by public bus, but the bus was very infrequent, so I was hoping the festival would be running a shuttle or something similar from one of the area train stations.

My first stop on my way south was the city of Daejeon. It wasn't especially close to the Baekje festival, but it was the capital city of the province and the festival had been extensively advertised. Unfortunately, the tourist people at Daejeon didn't know anything about the reenactment, but I showed them the brochure and they made some calls and recommended a short train ride then a public bus to the site. I was still hoping to find a way that didn't involve the bus as the final public bus was perilously close to the end of the reenactment, which was in the middle of nowhere. I decided to take the train to Nonsan and try asking there too.

The Nonsan tourist information center knew even less about how to get to the battlefield, even though the reenactment was allegedly being hosted by their city. They gave me the number of what I think was the battlefield museum to call, but my Korean was nowhere good enough to attempt that. Since my dream of a convenient shuttle bus was shattered, I decided to give up rather than risk being stranded in the countryside on an increasingly cold fall night. If I'm in Korea next year, I'm definitely borrowing or renting a car and making the trip to see it. I believe my feelings about the issue now officially qualify as an obsession.

So anyway, there was a quick and convenient bus from Nonsan to Buyeo, so I hopped aboard and headed over to check-out the heart of the festival. The festival grounds were located next to a small sculpture park along the banks of the Geumgang River, overlooked by Busosanseong Fortress. I'd say it was a mid-sized festival populated with the usual assortment of vendors of food and random consumer items. There were a few exhibits of art and festival history, as well as some craft activities for the kiddies. For me, the main attractions were the day's set of shows and events. (Although I do have to admit that I made multiple trips throughout the day to the booth selling potato spirals on sticks.)

The first show I was interested in was a falconry demo. Unfortunately, the falcons never made an appearance. The festival provided an English map, so I know I was in the right place, and even if I weren't the grounds weren't big enough to hide a falcon at work, so I guess it was cancelled for some reason. I spent a while wandering around to make sure, watched a bit of what I believe was an audience participation quiz show (don't know what the winner got), then headed up to the street to wait for the "Baekje History & Culture Parade".

The parade featured what I assume were students from area middle and high schools dressed as Baekjae officials. The procession was quite long and the costumes were surprisingly decent compared to similar parades of school children I'd seen in other parts of Korea, so I enjoyed it. I did wonder how the students who got to play the kings and queens and be pulled around in litters by the other students were selected. Some of the kings and queens appeared to be played by adults, and there were also a adults dressed as court officials and soldiers, so it wasn't actually a children's parade. There were just a lot of children in it to fill out the ranks and probably to try to generate a sense of Baekje pride in the youngsters.

After the parade, I grabbed a bit of dinner (okay, a potato twist) then stopped to watch the Mimaji Masked Dance Performance. Mimaji was a Korean from Baekje who performed Buddhist masked dances originating in China and was credited with introducing those dances to Japan. In fact, early Japanese Buddhism was transmitted to Japan via the Baekje Kingdom. So when history books talk about contact between the Japanese court and Korea, they basically mean Baekje.

I don't know if tonight's performances were historically accurate portrayals of the dances performed by Mimaji or the show was just named for him. In the show, masked actors wordlessly portrayed what I assumed were Korean folk stories accompanied by music. As with similar performances in Japan, most of the fun was trying to guess what the stories were about. There was a bit of dancing and in one no doubt ribald story some sort of goblin, or maybe he was just a jerk, got his penis cut off. There was also a fun lion (I assume) show where teams of performers in shaggy costumes danced around the stage.

The featured event of the evening, the Procession of General Gyebaek, began shortly after dusk. It was a martial arts show featuring amazing demonstrations of taekwondo and bamboo cutting, some dancing, and a lot of dramatic Korean speaking. I've seen plenty of taekwondo/karate demos in the US, but this was my first one in Korea, and it was crazy. It started out with some mundane demonstrations of weapons and kata performances, similar to what I'd seen in the past, but it ended with the most amazing board breaking demo I've ever seen.

The emphasis of the demo was on skill rather than power, with things like lone performers breaking more than 10 boards one after the other with a quick succession of spin kicks. Others jumped, flipped, and vaulted high into the air to break boards held 10 feet or more above the ground. There were a few slips on the wet grass, but I think even with that only two people missed their boards in the entire show. It may not have been terribly useful in a fight, but it was absolutely entertaining and a great way to end the night.

Since I made my decision to visit at the last minute, there were no hotels available in Buyeo (or at least not that you could pre-book, on-line, in English) so I got a place for the night in Daejeon. There were actually many cheap-looking motels in Buyeo, so I suspect I could have gotten a room there if I'd just shown up and wandered around the city a bit, but I don't like to have to worry about a room for the night.

Staying in Daejeon wasn't a problem, though. There were plenty of buses between the two cities, and I was able to stay late enough in Buyeo to see the evening's performances. I did have to leave before something called the "Streets of Excitement", but I didn't see any Excitement building before I left, so I'm not sure if I missed anything worth seeing or not.
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