This past Saturday I took a day trip to Sangju, a small but very old city in Gyeongsangbuk-do. It’s actually one of the cities that contributed to the name of the Gyeongsang provinces, along with Gyeongju. I was going there as part of a series of trips hosted by the Sangju city government to promote their city for tourism. Most of the participants were Koreans, but I and a few other foreigners got to tag along thanks to the organizer of the Seoul Expat Global Meetup Group (meetup.com), who scored some extra invites.
The main attraction of the trip was the second annual Sangju Dried Persimmon Festival. Sangju is famous for dried persimmons, and for good reason – as we drove around the city (which is about 2.5-3 hours out of Seoul), almost all of the trees we saw were persimmon trees. The city itself was actually so small that for the vast majority of the trip, I really felt just like we were in the countryside (시골). The festival took place in the the Dried Persimmon Park (곶감공원), a permanent park with large figurines of persimmons and tigers, along with a sort of convention center. The tigers seemed like rather a non sequitur, but it turns out that there is an old Korean tale in which a father, at first unable to quiet his crying child by warning that a tiger would come if they didn’t stop, finally managed to appease the child by bringing out persimmons.
There was a decent amount of snow on the ground, so luckily the main part of the festival was held inside the convention center, where a number of vendors from different farms were selling a variety of dried persimmons. They all had samples for free tasting – I found that I preferred the persimmons that were completely dried, rather than partially dried, although the latter admittedly look prettier for gift sets. One ajusshi trying to sell me his persimmons was unusually bold in talking to me at full-speed in Korean without having had any indication that I could speak the language (most Koreans seem, understandably, to try to interact without talking unless I talk first). Unfortunately, while my listening has improved greatly since I came to Seoul four months ago, I wasn’t really able to keep up with rapid-fire saturi (dialect). We also got to see a demonstration of an automated persimmon peeling machine, which was pretty cool (too fast for me to catch on video, actually).
After hanging out at the festival, we moved on to a restaurant for lunch. On the way, we stopped by what is apparently the oldest persimmon tree (whether in Korea or the world, I’m not sure, but supposedly it’s some 750 years old). Anyway, the restaurant we ended up at was a new establishment specializing in a kind of duck stew (it seemed to be some variant of 오리탕). Hilariously, the restaurant sign quite prominently declared, in English, “Since 2012” – I guess that’ll sound more impressive in, say, 10 years from now. Regardless, though, the food was absolutely delicious. One of the side dishes was raw marinated crab (양념게장), which I tried for the first time even though I’ve seen it before. The taste of the crab itself is actually almost neutral, and it’s very soft and almost jelly-like. It wasn’t bad, but I wasn’t as thrilled by it as many Koreans seem to be.
After lunch, we traveled around to a few of the touristy spots in Sangju. The first was a park with a shrine and monument commemorating the Japanese invasion of 1592 in which 800 Koreans died. The second was a shrine honoring General Jeong Ki-ryong, a prominent Army general during the 1590s who recaptured Sangju Castle from the Japanese, among other successes. Next, we stopped by an artificial waterfall that is a popular photo spot in the winter because of the beautiful icicles that form, and lastly we went to the Sangju Bicycle Museum. The Bicycle Museum was more interesting than I had expected – it was really cool to see all the crazy permutations that bicycle designs have gone through, plus I personally enjoyed realizing that I could read about the mechanics and benefits of bicycle riding in Korean (there was minimal English signage).
Once we got out of the museum, it was already 4pm, so we had to start the 3-hour journey back to Seoul. Overall, visiting Sangju was a great trip – I’d never had dried persimmons before, and visiting the shrines taught me some Korean history that even many of the native Koreans were apparently unfamiliar with. I’d definitely recommend checking out Sangju if you’re interested in somewhere a little off the beaten tourist track in Korea. It’s a pretty easy day trip from Seoul. My only caveat, though, is that it would be best to go with a Korean friend unless you’re pretty proficient in Korean. There didn’t seem to be much in the way of English maps etc.