A cultural village not far from the South Korean capital allows visitors the ultimate immersive experience
With a red dot on each cheek and another on her forehead, a young woman walks slowly through a crowd. She is flanked by two older ladies who, like her, are wearing bright-pink and royal-blue hanbok, the traditional Korean dress. Her head is bowed, allowing onlookers to admire her jokduri, an intricate headdress embellished with tiny ornaments. This, as well as the hanbok, are key elements of the classic Korean wedding outfit. Gracefully, the woman lowers to her knees and sits opposite her husband-to-be, who is separated from her by a table laden with offerings to the gods. Their elaborate wedding ceremony takes about 20 minutes, and ends with a procession in which the groom rides off on a horse as his bride trails behind, ensconced in an ornate chariot.
It’s not true love, though — rather, this is a re-creation of a traditional wedding from Korea’s Joseon dynasty era, and it takes place in a faux-ancient village on the outskirts of Seoul.
The South Korean capital is now one of the world’s most modern and cosmopolitan cities, full of cutting-edge skyscrapers, expressways, shopping centres and apartment blocks. But the Korean Folk Village, 35km south of Seoul, showcases a different aspect of the country — its fabled history, enriched by unique cultures and traditions. Spread across more than 200 acres of land in a strikingly beautiful, verdant valley, this huge open-air museum is designed to replicate villages and lifestyles from the Joseon dynasty, and bring an enchanting past back to life.
The Joseon dynasty had Seoul as its hub and it dated from the late 1300s to the early 1900s, making it one of the longest-lasting monarchies the world has seen. Korean culture changed significantly during this period, and many of the iconic aspects of the Joseon era are on display for visitors at the Folk Village.
Built in 1974, the complex is intended to look like a hamlet, with 270 traditional buildings, including gwana (government offices), hanyakbang (medical facilities), seonangdang (religious structures), and seowon and seodang (educational institutions). Many of these structures are ancient — original Joseon-era buildings relocated here from provinces across South Korea, and meticulously restored. The interiors of the buildings are similarly authentic, fitted out with furniture and utensils unique to the Joseon period. The village staff don traditional Korean garb, variously dressing as sato (governors), geosang (merchants) and daejanggeum (royal chefs).
The realism is wonderful, but perhaps the most engrossing aspect of the Folk Village is the array of immersive experiences available in and around these traditional structures. There are daily cultural shows, such as the wedding ceremony, tightrope walking exhibitions, traditional farming displays and incredible horseback acrobatic shows. The skill and courage of the young men involved in this last show is remarkable — while riding horses at pace around a small enclosure, they stand, swing and leap from the beasts with astounding ease. The show reaches its climax as two horses are ridden side by side and a human pyramid of five men forms atop the animals.
There are also many hands-on workshops, including several that feature action-packed activities like archery sessions, horseback rides and row boat excursions. Talented artisans lead more than a dozen different classes, teaching participants handicrafts and labor techniques from the Joseon period. Besides learning about pottery, bamboo wares, woodwork, brass work, musical instruments, embroidery, tobacco pipes and fabric dyeing, visitors can also try their hand at crafting household items like soban (dining table) and ongdukae (wooden cloth roller).
The artistically inclined can check out the workshop that focuses on the ancient skill of pyrography, which involves drawing on wood with hot instruments; and the dyeing demonstrations, which allow you to fashion your own handkerchief by coloring it with natural materials like gardenia seeds and sappan wood. Tourists who want a custom-made souvenir can design and craft their own Korean masks, and there also are workshops dedicated to making musical instruments, tobacco pipes, straw shoes, bamboo baskets and hand fans. Some of the traditional trades are too difficult or dangerous to allow visitor participation, but you still get the chance to observe blacksmiths and brassware artisans in action.
The education provided by these experiences is enhanced by several museums in the Village. The Korean Folk Museum has exhibits on rural settlements during the Joseon dynasty, which detail the daily lives of four particular farming families who lived in the countryside surrounding the Folk Village. In another nearby hall, the Earthenware Exhibition investigates the history of Korean pottery from the 14th to the 18th centuries, highlighting some of the finest examples of these wares in each century. Korean masked dances are explained in the Dance Exhibition Hall, which offers intriguing details about Bongsan dances and Bukcheong lion dance dramas, two popular forms of entertainment during the Joseon era.
It is the education offered by these museums and the myriad workshops which elevate the Korean Folk Village above many other open-air cultural attractions in Asia, many of which stray into gaudy theme-park territory. So authentic is this setting in the forests south of Seoul that the village is regularly used as a filming location for period television dramas and films. Wandering its dusty pathways, through villages of earth-walled, straw-roof buildings, the neon lights and towering skyline of Seoul seem almost as far away as the Joseon dynasty itself.
Also read: 4 tips on navigating Seoul as a tourist
This article originally appeared in the October 2016 issue of Smile magazine.